“Who is this guy?!” – Sports fans around the world say while Kevin Pillar continues to invade their highlights.
The crazy thing is, the outfielder was never supposed to be here, let alone succeeding the way he is.
It all starts where the 26-year-old was drafted. Coming out of Cal State Dominguez Hills, Pillar was selected in the 32nd round by the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto couldn’t have been any further from his home in California, but from day one, all Pillar wanted to do was run with an opportunity.
That he has done.
His skill set was on full display as soon as he stepped on to a professional baseball field. In 2011, playing for the Bluefield Blue Jays in the rookie Appalachian League, Pillar slashed his way to a .347 average, consisting of 82 hits in 60 games, and 7 home runs.
He was called up to Low-A in 2012, where he continued his pursuit of the big leagues in grand fashion. Pillar would play 86 games for Lansing, posting 108 hits, hitting .322, and stealing 35 bags. In the same year, he would move on to play High-A ball in Dunedin, and hit .323 with 34 RBI and 16 swiped bases. His defense and range began to break through as he patrolled all positions in the outfield, while not committing an error in 42 starts.
From there, Pillar packed his bags in 2013 to play ball in New Hampshire for the Double-A squad. With another plus-.300 season under his belt, the Blue Jays finally gave him a shot to showcase himself for the big club. He made his debut on August 13, but his success in the minors did not transition well to MLB. After a huge drop in average for one of the best hitters in their farm system (.206 in 36 games with the Blue Jays) Toronto demoted him back to the minors, but this time to Triple-A Buffalo.
In 2014, he would play a half-and-half season, splitting his time between Buffalo and Toronto. While having another solid campaign in the batters box for Buffalo, the Jays would give the 25-year-old another chance to crack the roster on May 13. Pillar showed glimpses of what he was capable of in the 53 games he played for the club. He had a fielding percentage of 1.000, showed tremendous range and versatility in the outfield, and made consistent contact.
The one knock on Pillar that year? His attitude. On June 24, against the New York Yankees, Manager John Gibbons chose to pinch-hit him for Anthony Gose. This decision did not sit well with the young outfielder, leading him to throw his bat down the clubhouse steps. When you’re hitting .225 at the time with no home runs and two RBIs, throwing a tantrum is unacceptable. Pillar was sent back to Buffalo the following day.
In 2015, number 11 was given a chance at redemption, and earned himself a spot as the fourth outfielder with the Blue Jays. While avoiding serious injury from a sneeze that strained his oblique, Pillar quickly got the promotion to starting left fielder after Canadian Michael Saunders stepped on a sprinkler head, tearing his left meniscus.
From then on, Pillar wouldn’t look back.
These are just some of the catches he made in the month of April. He has now taken over the starting job in center field due to the struggles of Dalton Pompey, and is a top 5 defensive WAR leader (1.6).
Not only has he got it done with the leather, but Pillar has supplied offensive production from the bottom of the Blue Jays lineup. While making in-season adjustments to his timing with his leg kick (shorter, more subtle) in late May, Pillar had a June to remember. During that span, he hit for a .365 AVG, a .911 OPS and put together an 11-game hit streak. This month, he is sitting at a .357 AVG and a .893 OPS. Overall, his average reads .281 with a .718 OPS and 7 bombs, while also posting a multi-home run game against Max Scherzer.
Kevin Pillar is the definition of “coming out of nowhere.” Being drafted in the 32nd round, nobody had him pegged to be playing the way he has been in 2015; hell, nobody had him climbing out of A-ball back in 2011. He has worked his way in to becoming one of the most elite outfielders in the game, and has shown that he has the ability to adjust at the plate. The minute Pillar laces up his gold and blue cleats and trots out to center field, he comes to sacrifice the body, do what it takes to win games, and is well on his way towards a Gold Glove award for the Blue Jays. Watching a man who was never supposed to be in a big league uniform contribute each night is a blessing for not only Toronto, but for their fans. If you have yet to hear about him, something tells me you soon will.