By Patrick Allen
Canadian Baseball Network
Kevin Pillar’s theatrics in the outfield have made the West Hills, Calif., native a household name across the country and cemented the 28-year-old's legacy as one of the best outfielders in baseball.
But earning the moniker “Superman” does not come without some wear and tear, and in an attempt to limit the physical toll of his aggressive style, Pillar came into the 2017 season looking to shake-up his approach and increase his longevity.
“I have good days and bad days,” Pillar said of the toll of a 162-game schedule earlier this month before a home game against the Tampa Bay Rays. “One thing that I’ve tried to do better this year is recognize times I can give my body a rest, whether it’s not hitting BP for a day or not going out on the turf to shag fly balls. In years in the past, I felt like these were things I needed to do on a daily basis. Now everything I do is in order to prepare and be myself best for 7:00.”
Immersed in a major league season that has been dominated by the resurgence of the home run, Pillar, the last line of defence in the Blue Jays outfield, has had to make adjustments to his on-field approach as well, with the centre fielder’s starting distance from home plate increasing from an average of 317 feet in 2016 to 322 this season.
“Guys are just swinging and hitting the ball harder. For me, it’s not like I have a plan to play deeper, I adjust according to how the game goes and what I’ve seen in the many innings I’ve played,” said the centre fielder.
In addition to getting a better start on long fly balls, playing deep also provides Pillar with an opportunity to showcase the range and accuracy of his arm, something he outlined as a goal of his back in spring training. To date, the California native has excelled with the challenge, currently sporting five more Outfield Arm Runs Saved (rARM) this season compared to his 2016 total.
Despite the statistical improvements, however, Pillar is quick to highlight the catch-22 that comes with defenders increasing their separation from the remainder of the field of play.
“You’ve got to pick your poison a little bit, [playing deeper] makes it harder to throw runners out at the plate, especially in centre field,” said the former All-American. “If a guy beats us up the middle on a hard ground ball we take our chances, but guys are trying to get the ball in the air and try to drive it and if I can make plays by playing deeper then I’ll play a little bit deeper.”
With the dog days of summer winding down, the Blue Jays find themselves at the bottom of nine-team logjam for the two American League Wild-Card spots. A reality that is made all the more bitter considering the team’s success in years past.
Despite the overwhelming odds being stacked against the Blue Jays' playoff hopes, a lowly 1% according to FanGraphs.com, Pillar and the rest of the team maintain a committed attitude towards making the most of their remaining 32 games, 23 of which are against teams in the AL Wild Card picture.
“The majority of the guys in here are the guys who were in this clubhouse last year. We’ve experienced the post-season in back-to-back years and did it in a couple of different ways: two years ago, we ran the table winning the division and then last year we played meaningful games down the stretch which allowed us to get to that wild card game,” said the centre fielder.
“Nobody in here is ready to pack it up and go home. We’ve been fortunate to have had a taste of the good life and even when things don’t seem too optimistic, this group stays positive.”