Blue Jays’ Kevin Pillar leaner but his goals are loftier than ever

Follow new Blue Jays outfielder Curtis Granderson through all the stations, as the 2018 Toronto Blue Jays are put through Sportsnet’s media day "car wash" in Dunedin.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – There’s a purpose behind Kevin Pillar’s leaner-looking frame.

After the 2017 season, Pillar took stock of his game. He had just played in 154 games while posting a .704 OPS and making some impressive catches in centre field.

But as Pillar entered his age-29 season, he wanted to improve in certain areas. Well, in all areas, really. In 2018 he’s aiming to make harder, more consistent contact at the plate, become more of a threat on the bases, and even improve defensively. To achieve those goals, he resolved to build mobility and trim down his body.

In recent years, Pillar has played at 215 pounds or so. He has made countless highlight-reel catches at that weight while stealing at least 14 bases in each of his three full seasons. Still, he felt that more speed would help, so he worked daily with a physical therapist and cut down on his meal portions.

"I’ve always been kind of an over-eater," he said. "I enjoy food and I enjoy eating. I’ve always been a healthy eater, but it was just the amount that I was eating."

At first, Pillar felt hungry but after a couple weeks he adjusted smoothly to the change in diet. Smaller portions became the norm.

Meanwhile, he worked with a physical therapist in concert with the Blue Jays’ training staff and high performance department. At one point, head trainer Nikki Huffman flew out to California to meet with Pillar and physical therapist Zach Ray to outline a plan. His physical therapy sessions would target ankle mobility, shoulder mobility and his back. The goal: make him more dynamic at the plate and in the field.

Pillar wasn’t rehabbing a specific injury. Rather, he was trying to recover from the grind of a long season and prepare for another seven-plus months of daily work. Decades ago, baseball people might have frowned on young players who used the training room. Now, teams urge players to get the treatment they need.

"Encouraging us to not stay out of the training room like baseball culture had for a long time," Pillar said. "The guys that went to the training room were always the ones that were hurt. Older guys would bang on the younger guys for being in there, but a lot of that’s just to prevent injury."

Pillar’s work in the training room has paid off to this point in his career. Only 26 MLB players have appeared in more games than Pillar since he became a regular in 2015.

During that three-year period, he has generated at least 1.9 wins above replacement per season. Still, his WAR total dropped off from 2015 to 2016 and again in 2017.

Improved footspeed could help Pillar produce on a couple of fronts, so he worked on his first step and mechanics to improve his sprinting. He watched video and focused on the fundamentals of running. From what first base coach Tim Leiper has seen, the work will pay off.

"Just with the way his body is compared to last year or three years ago," said Leiper, who works with Blue Jays outfielders on positioning and helps baserunners read pitchers at first base. "He’s going to be faster. It looks like he’s moving around really easy and he feels good."

In 2018, Pillar hopes to become more of a threat on the bases than he was last year, when he succeeded in 15 of 21 stolen base attempts. He’ll pick his spots to remain as efficient as possible, but he wants pitchers thinking about him when he reaches.

"That’s something that I’m going to take a little more pride in," Pillar said. "Then find the right time to run, and when I run I want to be confident that I can steal bases. I know that the game kind of talks about stolen bases as ‘Maybe it’s not worth it anymore,’ but there’s definitely opportunities to steal."

Then there’s Pillar’s defence — his defining attribute to this point in his major league career. Even those who haven’t played with Pillar are aware of his reputation

"The things he can do out there in centre field are impressive," said right fielder Randal Grichuk. "Arguably the best centre fielder in the game."

Even so, Pillar’s expecting more from himself in 2018.

"I’m not going to settle for being a good defender," he said. "I want to push the limits."

He’s now hopeful that his speed work can increase his range and allow him to stay on his feet more often. Those highlight-reel dives might become a little more rare.

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"I think diving just comes out of necessity more than anything," he said. "It’s not style points for me, it’s just trying to get outs, trying to help our team win games. If I can stay on my feet even more, it’s going to help my body over the long course of a season."

At the plate, Pillar intends to change his approach. To this point in his career, he has swung at more than half of the pitches he has seen (for reference, MLB hitters swung at 46.5 per cent of total pitches last year). He has made plenty of contact, but it hasn’t always been hard contact. This year, he’s prioritizing quality contact.

"Harder contact more consistently, hitting the ball hard, and hitting the ball in the air," he said. "That’s the new way of the game. That doesn’t mean hitting it over the fence all the time, it just means trying to avoid hitting the ball on the ground."

"If I’ve got to swing and miss, swing and miss," he added. "Don’t try to force the contact."

That said, it’s not as though Pillar’s not about to become a three true outcome hitter. His goal is to make better contact and if he hits more homers, that’s even better.

"Ideally the power numbers go up and the strikeouts go down," Pillar said. "I think that’s achievable."

So to summarize, Pillar’s hoping to steal more bases, play better defence and make better contact. It’s a lot to ask of any player.

"His work ethic is second to none," Leiper said. "He’s always getting better at his game, even though he’s already good. He always works his butt off."

By the time he showed up to spring training, Pillar felt physically strong, and a little lighter on his feet. He was down 15 pounds, from 215 to 200.

If his lighter physique plays the way he hopes it will, he’ll have found a way to sustain the success brought him this far.

"I just feel better," Pillar said. "I feel lighter on my feet. It got to a point in my career, I’m going into my fourth full season and the position I play is very physically demanding. If I can be a little lighter on my feet for the longevity of my career, I feel like this was a great time for me to make that change."

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