Another one bites the dust. Kevin Pillar, who, coming into the season, was the longest tenured Blue Jay left on the roster, was shipped to San Fransisco on Tuesday morning.
At this point, we’re starting to become numb to the faces of the 2015 and 2016 Good Old Days getting sent packing one by one. The only guys we have left from those teams now are Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Smoak, Joe Biagini, Ryan Tepera, and the spirits of Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey. After seeing franchise legends like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion move on over the past few years, nothing should really phase Blue Jays fans anymore.
A lot of fans were ready to see Pillar go because it meant that an interesting prospect in Anthony Alford would get an opportunity to show what he can do in centre field. I won’t throw a blanket over the entire fanbase because many viewed Pillar as a favourite for his highlight-reel catches and gritty style of play, but I think it’s fair to say many of us embraced this deal with open arms.
That being said, while it’s completely reasonable to be excited for the door that moving on from Pillar opens, we certainly shouldn’t throw dirt over his name. Rather than remembering Kevin Pillar for wild swings and pitches in the dirt and the perennial disappointment of him having not actually figured out his approach, we should appreciate a player who came out of absolutely nowhere to play a very important role on the 2015 and 2016 teams.
Pillar was drafted in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft out of a Division II school in California. He received a $1000 signing bonus and used all of it to purchase an iPhone. I honestly don’t remember ever seeing his name on a top prospects list.
But just under eight years after being some random drafted out of California State University Dominguez Hills long after anybody was paying attention, Pillar sits 24th in wins above replacement all-time among Blue Jays position players, right behind Shawn Green and right ahead of Paul Molitor. Also, of the 978 players taken ahead of him that year, only six (Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, George Springer, Mookie Betts, and Kyle Hendricks) have been worth more WAR than Pillar.
Considered a bat-first corner outfielder without much upside, Pillar was first called up to the Major Leagues towards the end of that miserable 2013 season. He got called up a month into the 2014 season due to injuries and then got sent back down after lashing out at John Gibbons for pulling him out of a tight game to use Anthony Gose as a pinch hitter.
Pillar thought that mistake was going to cost him his career. Gose, at the time, was a high-upside prospect while Pillar was, uh, not. He would go down to Triple-A Buffalo, hit well, and come back up in August, where he would continue to hit. During his second chance, Pillar slashed a .289/.333/.447 line in 27 games in garbage time for the Jays to close out the 2014 season. That showing most certainly put him on the organization’s radar.
Pillar was one of the many question marks who travelled north with the Blue Jays to kick off the 2015 season. He started the season as the team’s left fielder in place of the injured Michael Saunders while Dalton Pompey was given centre field. Pompey struggled and eventually got demoted, so Pillar was given the centre field gig. With Pompey’s struggles and Saunders’ injury, somebody needed to step up. Pillar was that guy.
Amidst all the confusion of that 2015 team in the early going, Pillar was a rock. He hit fairly well, and, most importantly, played excellent defence in the middle of an outfield that saw a revolving door of poor fielders like Chris Colabello, Zeke Carrera, and Danny Valencia in left and an armless Jose Bautista in right.
Had Pillar not stepped up, there’s a fair chance the 2015 season as we know it wouldn’t have gone down. I mean, it’s right there with his totally-and-literally-out-of-left-field 3.7 WAR that season, but there’s also the anecdotal evidence of big catches in the field that helped compensate for shitty pitching and clutch hits like his homer off of Max Scherzer that started a season-saving winning streak. Take away some of those key hits and catches and maybe the team’s record doesn’t warrant Alex Anthopolous going all-in at the trade deadline.
The following seasons certainly weren’t as good. The 3.7 WAR he posted in 2015 is far and away the best of his career, and, over the last couple of seasons, Pillar’s defence has started to decline and his bat was never good enough to compensate for it. There’s no doubt it was time to move on.
Still, Pillar has a truly incredible story and it’s one that should be remembered fondly. This is a player who constantly put his body on the line for the team and frequently played through injuries. As corny as it sounds, he compensated for a lack of skill with hard work and gritty play and provided the Blue Jays with more than anybody reasonably could have expected.