What do you do with a one-trick pony that has lost his trick?
Before his rise to semi-stardom, Pillar was a four-A player in the Blue Jays organization. The player drafted in the 32nd round back in 2011 slashed .315/.353/.503 in 152 games between his two years with the Bison in 2013 and 2014. He was too good for regular reps down in Buffalo, but until 2015, he often struggled to stick on the major league team. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, he was demoted in 2014 after a June outburst in the dugout during a game against the Yankees when he objected to being pinch hit for in a tie game. At that point, it felt like his Blue Jays career was over.
There’s no question that Kevin Pillar is on this team now because of what he’s done patrolling center field at the Rogers Centre. His highlight reel catches on a seemingly nightly basis earned him the name Superman, and for good reason. In the two back-to-back ALCS years, Pillar often only trailed Kevin Kiermaier as best defensive CF in the American League, which earned him Gold Glove consideration. His combined 43 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) ranked third among all outfielders in the MLB from 2015 to 2016.
Pillar hasn’t reverted back to the form that couldn’t get him a job on shitty Blue Jays teams in 2013-2014. He’s just been the same this entire time, but with better defense. Back then, he was a guy that gave you elite fielding at a premium position on a good team offensively. His shortcomings were recognized but accepted because on a team that boasted Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista, you could afford having a black hole in the lineup.
But with the embarrassment of riches in the lineup now all gone, and declining defense in the outfield, it may be time for the Blue Jays to move on from Kevin Pillar.
As it stands, his .245/.274/.408 line looks awful even for the lowered expectations that you have for the center fielder. But when you take in the fact that he started hot, it somehow looks even worse. Since May 18th – or his last 317 plate appearances – Pillar has a wRC+ of 52, hitting .211/.233/.352. We’re now in Ryan Goins territory for him, and the defense – even if it was still at an elite level – certainly doesn’t make up for it.
His DRS is currently in a free fall, and whether you look at numbers or him at the games, it’s easy to tell that he’s not the same person he was two seasons ago. Now not only could he not hit, he really couldn’t defend.
Of course, since we’re not savages and are baseball fans in the year 2018, we’ll also look at something like Statcast to understand this further. Statcast has an Outs Above Average stat, which is just like DRS. I’ll let them explain it here:
Outs Above Average (OAA) is the cumulative effect of all individual Catch Probability plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them. For example, a fielder who catches a 25% Catch Probability play gets +.75; one who fails to make the play gets -.25
In 2016, the first year data is available for, Kevin Pillar’s 13 OAA ranked tenth league wide. In the two years since? -1 and 1, respectively. Visually, you can tell that something’s amiss. Last year, he made some spectacular catches after putting himself in a bad spot with a terrible first step, but now he’s not even getting to balls at all.
Among the laundry list of problems the 2018 Blue Jays had this year, defense was one of them. As a team, their -47 DRS ranks them 28th league wide, leading only the Phillies and the comically bad Orioles.
Sure, Pillar could rebound and provide above average defense again someday, but we already know who he is with the bat. He turns 30 next January, and shows no sign of ever producing with the bat over the course of a full season. A guy like that could be much better suited for a contender, and not a rebuilding team with a surplus of outfielders.
What makes all of this worse is that any chance of getting something of value in return for him in a trade is long gone. Both his fWAR and bWAR are currently at 1.4, which is around the mark for a role player. Is it worth the time to tender him a contract and give him consistent playing time with all the other outfield depth the team has?
There are only so many spots on both the 25 and 40 man rosters, and waiting to see if a 30-year-old returns to defensive form just to get something like an org guy for him doesn’t sound like it would help the development of the other young outfielders hungry for a job.
This will hurt because it will mean that yet another piece of those back to back ALCS runs are gone, but Kevin Pillar is no longer Superman, and it may be time that his Blue Jay story ends.