Over the holidays we’ll be re-visiting Sportsnet staff writers’ favourite pieces from 2017. Today: Arden Zwelling explains why a piece about Kevin Pillar’s walk-off home run on Mother’s Day tops his list.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there are flaws to Kevin Pillar’s game. He struggles to maintain a patient plate approach. He swings at far too many pitches outside the strike zone. It’s all been scrutinized and dissected to no end since he first reached the majors. By now you know he’s not the best hitter you’re ever going to see.
But he’s also one of the most underappreciated Toronto Blue Jays of the last three seasons. No one’s played more games for the team over that span. No one’s hit more doubles or stolen more bases. No one’s played better defence, according to stats both new school and old, and no one’s played more defence. Pillar’s made 742 plays since 2015 — Josh Donaldson is next at 534.
And he’s not even supposed to be here. No one pegged Pillar as an everyday major-leaguer until he became one. Remember, he’s a 32nd-round pick — 979th overall — out of California State University Dominguez Hills, an NCAA Div. II school that has sent only five players to the majors, and only one who has stuck around. (Pillar’s played 548 MLB games; the other four combined for 82.)
Pillar was a walk-on at Dominguez Hills. No recruitment, no scholarship. Just some kid out of a catholic school that wasn’t known for baseball. But he made the team, strung together a 54-game hitting streak (still an NCAA Div. II record), and got himself drafted.
A completely unheralded prospect, Pillar fought his way uphill until he finally made it to Toronto and, after some momentary setbacks, stuck. You’ve watched the rest as he’s amassed more than 12 career wins above replacement and made some of the best catches you’ve ever seen.
And when he hit a walk-off homer on Mother’s Day this year, Pillar looked as good as ever. He was batting .314/.369/.497 through a quarter of the season. He was entrenched as Toronto’s lead-off hitter. He was atop the American League in hits. That’s what I wrote about that day, one Pillar said was among the most special of his career, because his parents were there to watch him win the game. For whatever reason, the piece stuck with me all year.
As it happened, that was also the statistical height of Pillar’s season. His numbers suffered greatly as he fought through deep June and July slumps. And despite a strong finish to the year, which went overlooked amidst his team’s disappointing results, Pillar fell short of the career season he was building that Sunday in May.
But that day it looked like he was on the cusp of something special. And after it he never stopped working — never stopped trying to be better. That’s how he got here. And I bet that’s what he’ll do next season and every season until they won’t let him play anymore.
Pillar was never a feature of top prospect lists after the Blue Jays drafted him in 2011. He was never in anyone’s Top 100. Sure, he won an Appalachian League batting title in his first season with the Bluefield Blue Jays, batted .323 across mid- and high-A the next year, and never hit worse than .299 at any minor-league stop he made. But scouts and evaluators saw an undisciplined, swing-happy hitter who thought he could get his bat to every pitch he was thrown, no matter where it ended up. And they saw a raw defender who few thought was fast enough to play centre field in the majors. Even the Blue Jays were hesitant to give their own prospect opportunities in centre as he was climbing the ranks.
But every year, as Pillar slowly ascended Toronto’s system, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons kept hearing spring training tales from minor-league coaches about the overlooked kid everyone needed to watch out for.
“Every manager who had him, coach who had him, loved everything about him,” Gibbons says. “They all said, you’ve just got to watch him play every day. Sometimes it’ll look ugly. But he helps you win.”