DUNEDIN – In the mix to be the Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter to begin this season, Kevin Pillar wants the gig.
“I just think I’m ready,” said Pillar. “I think I grew a lot from experiencing my first full season last year and I’m pretty confident I’m the right guy for the job.”
Manager John Gibbons has identified Pillar, 27, and 29-year-oldMichael Saunders as the top two candidates to hit in front of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The leadoff spot was vacated when the Jays peddled Ben Revere to Washington for Drew Storen; Troy Tulowitzki, who led off in 26 games after last July’s trade to Toronto, but didn’t enjoy the experience, will occupy the fifth spot behind Encarnacion.
There’s an elephant in the room – Pillar’s on-base percentage – to be addressed in a moment. In the meantime, the man makes his case.
“I put the ball in play; I was second on the team in hits last year; I know how to get on base; I have the ability to run the bases very well,” said Pillar. “It’s not even about stealing bases; it’s about being able to score on a double from first base. I feel like I bring that to the table.”
These are fair points. Pillar’s 163 hits did rank second to Josh Donaldson’s 184 on the club in 2015. He is regarded as a good base runner, one of the better base runners on the team.
But he needs to get on base more. In his one full season in the big leagues, last year’s breakthrough predicated on his elite centre field defence, Pillar posted a .314 OBP. Together with his part-seasons of 2013 and 2014, Pillar’s career major league OBP is .303.
In a perfect world, you’d like a leadoff hitter who gets on base about 35-percent (.350 OBP) of the time he goes to the plate. For the sake of argument, let’s work off a season of 650 plate appearances: A hitter with a .350 OBP would get on base approximately 228 times during the season; Pillar, with a .303 OBP, would reach safely 197 times. Rudimentary math tells us that’s 31 more times on base. That’s not insignificant and it would mean more than a handful increase of first inning at-bats for Donaldson with a runner aboard.
Pillar could help himself by taking more walks. He knows he was short on free passes last year; Pillar has a reputation of being aggressive at the plate. He sounds like a hitter who won’t be changing his approach because he doesn’t expect pitchers to stray from the strike zone.
“I’ve said it, I’ll say it again: I didn’t walk a lot last year. Guys aren’t trying to walk me in this league; you earn walks in this league,” said Pillar. “There are some times that maybe I could have taken walks but for the most part guys are trying to attack us. They’re not trying to give us free bases to go get the lineup turned over to face the big boys.”
Pillar said he expects to get better pitches to hit, fastballs especially, because pitchers have to tread carefully around the middle of the Jays’ order.
If it wasn’t for Kevin Kiermaier, Pillar would have won the American League’s gold glove award for centre fielders last season. His defence isn’t questioned; Pillar’s willingness to put his body on the line to make a play is matched only by Kiermaier. His Superman-like, highlight reel catches took a toll.
“I took a lot of time off this offseason to recover and I educated myself on body movement, body pattern,” said Pillar. “I got with the right people around here, came down to Florida early and got with some of the people responsible for (Marcus) Stroman’s rehab that really know the body inside and out and the things that would benefit me.”
Pillar realized quickly the daily maintenance he’d undergo in the trainer’s room helped to mask the pain. He was sore all over during a November trip with his wife to Hawaii.
“When you get up and do it every day, you don’t really get off days, maybe you get one day once a month, your body doesn’t really have a chance to catch up and realize how sore it is,” he said.
Typically, Pillar would resume weight lifting days after the end of a season. He waited until after U.S. Thanksgiving, so more than a month, this offseason. He got into yoga and Pilates, all with the goal of better preserving his body.
Scott MacArthur tsn.ca