Pillar putting in work to prove he isn’t just a defender

Kevin Pillar and his Blue Jay teammates are so pumped for the 2016 season that a bunch of them are already training in Florida. He is also taking aim at bigger and better things for himself and his teammates this season.

TORONTO — Kevin Pillar and his wife Amanda bought a house last month, a charming place not far from where the Toronto Blue Jays centre fielder grew up in California. They posed for pictures out front and moved some stuff in. Pillar picked out a spot for his golf clubs, and another one where he hopes to someday display his first Gold Glove. In a lot of ways it was a dream come true for the young couple, but Pillar only slept in his new house for three nights.

Florida was calling. That’s where a small contingent of Blue Jays players have been training out of the team’s facilities in Dunedin since early January in a team-building and season-preparation effort organized by Jose Bautista.

Second baseman Ryan Goins has been down there since shortly after New Year’s; Drew Hutchison and Devon Travis, both Florida natives, were among the first wave, too; Chris Colabello and one of the newest Blue Jays, J.A. Happ, joined shortly thereafter; and then came young pitchers and best friends Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, who had been training together since the fall at Duke University. They were all eager for Pillar to join.

“That excitement got me down to Florida,” Pillar says. “That excitement to pick up where we left off, to start working out with those guys, and to really build on what we accomplished last year.”

Bautista had called Pillar twice already earlier in the winter, urging him to come down. Bautista said he had some physical therapists and an acupuncturist he works with in the area that he wanted to introduce Pillar to, a team of medical professionals that specialize in the kind of therapy it takes to keep baseball players on the field, performing at their best for an entire season.

The first half of that equation, staying on the field, has rarely been an issue for Pillar: He can play through the pain. But it’s the second part, performing at his best for 162, that he’d like to address.

As it turns out, it hurts a hell of a lot to throw one’s body at a high rate of speed flat onto carpeted concrete for six months straight – it can start to eat away at your performance. As the 2015 season wore on, and the absurd diving catches piled up, Pillar started to feel himself breaking down.

“Despite me being able to go out there and play 159 games, I didn’t feel like I was 100 per cent for the majority of the season,” Pillar says. “Basically, I went out there and got through games.”

In order to recover from the bodily sacrifices he made, Pillar took more time off after the season than he normally does, staying completely away from swinging a bat or fielding a ball until after Christmas. When he got to Florida and spoke with some of the trainers Bautista uses, they noted red flags in his movement patterns, which were opening up the potential for injury. They’ve had Pillar working hard ever since to refine his movements and change how he prepares himself physically for a season, focusing more on mobility, flexibility and durability as he works his way towards spring training, instead of simply trying to build strength like he did in the past.

“I really just went back to the basics,” Pillar says. “I’m looking forward to being able to go out there closer to 100 per cent every day, with more range of motion in my body and more flexibility and all this stuff I’ve been able to learn this off-season.”

Pillar is also hoping his preparedness helps him at the plate, where he had a fine season (he finished second on the team in hits) but feels like he could do more. While 2015 was a breakout year in a lot of ways for the 27-year-old, it also featured the roughest offensive stretch of his life, punctuated by an awful May when he hit .181/.237/.257, looking absolutely lost at the plate.

You may remember that Pillar and the Blue Jays opened June in Washington for a three-game set but were rained out their first night in D.C. That gave Pillar an opportunity to spend hours in the batting cages with Blue Jays hitting coaches Brook Jacoby and Eric Owens, taking “thousands of swings” in search of an answer to whatever was troubling him.

Following all that work, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons sat Pillar for the first game of the subsequent doubleheader the next day, saving him for the second against Nationals ace Max Scherzer, one of the most dominant pitchers in the game today. No right-handed hitter had ever managed a multi-home run game against Scherzer in his career. So of course Pillar went out and took him deep twice.

“When you face a guy like Scherzer, you kind of go in with that mindset, like, this guy is probably going to dominate me anyway, I might as well try something new,” he says. “And that was kind of the turning point for my season.”

From that game on, Pillar hit .305/.339/.438 and carried that production over into the playoffs where he sported an .810 OPS. That’s money in the bank for a player who provides so much value defensively and on the base paths (don’t forget he stole 25 bases) and that’s how Pillar finished the season worth 4.3 wins above replacement, just slightly behind the 4.5 WAR put up by Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Still, all Pillar heard was that he was a defence-first player, a label that irritates him to no end.

So this off-season he’s trying to take his hitting a step further. Shortly before he went down to Florida, Pillar reached out to hitting guru Bobby Tewksbary, the same man that Josh Donaldson and Colabello credit with providing the keys to success in their swings. Pillar’s been logging long batting cage sessions with Tewksbary and Colabello in Dunedin for weeks.

“I think the biggest thing is just working on better patterns with my bat,” Pillar says. “The education of hitting — the awareness of my body, of what I’m doing in the box and when I’m swinging.”

Pillar has clearly bought in; rhetoric like that about being aware of how one’s body moves when they’re hitting is almost verbatim to how Donaldson and Colabello describe what they did to reach new heights offensively under Tewksbary’s guidance. And Pillar’s been watching his teammates closely.

“You can look at film of Donaldson, Colabello, all the good hitters in the game, and they all have the same movements,” he says. “They all have different ways of getting there, but they all get there and hopefully now I’m one of them.”

Toronto Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar hits a single (Chris Young/CP)

Toronto Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar hits a single (Chris Young/CP)

Now, no one’s saying Pillar’s going to be an MVP in 2016, but he demonstrated on that rainy day in Washington that when he really works hard on his swing, good things can happen. Many will tell you Pillar could do himself some favours by being more patient at the plate and drawing more walks, and when you consider that he swung at 40.9 per cent of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone in 2015 (the league average was 30.9 per cent) it appears they have a point. Of course, Pillar’s heard that criticism, too.

“Let’s be honest with each other about walks here,” he says. “These guys aren’t trying to walk me. I need to get that on the table. We always talk about walks and, yeah, walks are going to happen, but I’m up there to hit. If I get a good pitch to hit I’m not going to sit around and try to walk.”

And to his point, Pillar has shown an ability to pile up hits at every level he’s touched. He had 82 hits in 60 games during his rookie ball season five years ago and 161 hits in 128 games across two levels of A-ball a year later.

He didn’t post a batting average below .299 at any stop of his professional career until his first 36-game stint with the Blue Jays when he went 21-for-102, a cold spell that could easily be chalked up to an adjustment period during his first taste of major league pitching.

All told, Pillar has 782 hits in 689 games as a professional. Only 37 major leaguers had more hits than he did in 2015. Any way you slice it, he’s always hit.

And maybe it’s okay to just do that. Maybe not every player has to be an on-base machine. Maybe when you’re providing as much defensive and base-running value as Pillar is, a 163-hit season is really valuable. And maybe, if Pillar’s work with Tewksbary pays off, and if he gets a chance to fill the hole at the top of the lineup for the 2016 Blue Jays, batting in front of the most feared string of hitters in baseball, Pillar can be a very valuable player.

“You’re a pitcher and you have the choice between me, Donaldson, Bautista and Eddy — who are you going to take your chances with? Probably me,” Pillar says, already picturing himself at the top of the lineup card. “I promise you, if Josh is hitting in the two-hole behind me, I’ll get better pitches to hit and I’ll get on base more.”

That’s the plan for Kevin Pillar. Be physically prepared; be more consistent at the plate; be ready for what the toll of a full season plus the playoffs really means. And then, maybe next winter, spend some time in that new house.