TORONTO — As he rounded third base, Kevin Pillar looked up from his home run trot and saw his teammates waiting for him at home plate. They were jumping up and down. They were hanging off one another. Jubilant, delirious, elated young men ready to tear into their teammate the moment he arrived. As he jogged, Pillar planned his course carefully. He needed to get in and out as quickly as possible.
Before Sunday’s game, a Mother’s Day victory over the Seattle Mariners punctuated thrillingly by Pillar’s walk-off home run, the Blue Jays centre fielder was talking to his parents, Wendy and Mike. They were in Toronto all weekend watching him play, looking on from a crowd of more than 42,000 on Sunday along with Pillar’s wife, Amanda. It was Wendy’s first time watching her son compete in a big-league game on Mother’s Day. Pillar thought it would be nice if they could take a family photo after all was said and done. Even better if he was still wearing his white, pink and grey Mother’s Day uniform.
His teammates didn’t know that. When a Blue Jay hits a walk-off homer like Pillar’s, the custom is to forcibly remove the uniform from that player’s torso at home plate. Just days ago, Ryan Goins had his jersey torn to pieces after hitting his own walk-off. And that was only a single.
“I saw what happened to Go-Go the other day,” Pillar says. “His jersey wasn’t even recognizable.”
So, he ran. Away from his teammates, away to the dugout, away with his game-winning homer and his jersey mostly intact, save for a single ripped button and an orange Gatorade stain thanks to teammate Darwin Barney. And that’s okay. Not everything can be perfect. Pillar’s spent his entire career learning that.
When Pillar woke up Sunday morning, he found himself atop the American League in hits with 47. He was only three off Ryan Zimmerman’s major league lead. Not a bad achievement at all. But there was a number on his ledger that meant much more to him than that.
The previous day, in a 7-2 win against the Mariners, Pillar registered his 1,500th at-bat as a major leaguer, something he always dreamed of doing, and something many told him would never happen.
It’s also something that more than 2,600 ballplayers have done at the major-league level in the history of the game. That’s a lot. Pillar’s not making history here. But it is an accomplishment that carries perhaps a bit more weight for a 32nd-round pick out of a Division II college like Pillar. Especially one that took as long as he did to stick in the majors.
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.”
It’s impossible to ignore that there’s something different this season about Pillar, who has been the Blue Jays’ best hitter across the board. He’s walking more often, striking out less, and getting on base at a .369 clip. He’s leading off and he’s making it look natural.
“I take a lot of pride in being the first guy that steps to the plate every day,” Pillar says. “I’m really looking to try to set a tone.”
While Pillar’s still swinging at about half the pitches he sees—something that will probably never change—his pitch selection has improved dramatically. He’s swinging at only 34 per cent of the pitches thrown to him outside the zone this year, significantly cutting down a chase rate that has been as high as 40 per cent in his career.
He’s also making much better contact on the pitches he chooses to swing at inside the zone, getting his bat on those pitches 95 per cent of the time, up from 90 per cent in 2016. That may seem like a slight difference, but part of Pillar’s approach overhaul has been a focus on executing his best swing on good pitches to hit, and that number speaks to his ability to do just that.
A refusal to chase curveballs and sliders has been crucial as well. After swinging at more than half the breaking balls he saw in 2015 and 2016, Pillar is offering at only 40 per cent of those pitches this season, letting the spinning stuff go as he hunts fastballs. After whiffing on breaking pitches 15 per cent of the time over the last two years, he’s swinging and missing on those pitches only 12 per cent of the time in 2017. Again, only a marginal change, but an important one, especially considering pitchers are throwing him more breaking balls than ever before in 2017, with 29 per cent of all pitches he sees being curveballs and sliders.
As Pillar likes to say, the scouting report’s the scouting report. He’s struggled against those pitches for years, so naturally opposing pitchers are trying to use them to get him out. But as he’s crossed 1,500 at-bats, it appears Pillar’s made the adjustment.
“The veteran guys in here and our hitting coaches always reminded me you can’t really make a judgment on a hitter at the big-league level until about 1,000 at-bats, 1,200 at-bats, 1,500 at-bats, somewhere around there,” Pillar says, pointing out that No. 1,500 ended up being a double to the opposite field. “I think my learning curve just took me a little bit longer to get to the point where I’m at now.”
Gibbons thinks back sometimes to all those coaches who told him about Pillar when he was climbing the ranks of the Blue Jays system. The ones who said you just have to watch him play every day. That sometimes it’ll be ugly, but this guy helps you win.
“I can see everything they were saying now, you know?” Gibbons says. “He lays it out there every day. Every now and then he’ll do something that makes you scratch your head. But Kev’s that kind of player. You need those tough, hard-nosed guys. They just make you better.”
As he stepped into the box in the bottom of the ninth inning on Mother’s Day, with his parents and his wife watching, with a game on the line, Pillar went over his approach in his head. He was staring down Mariners closer Edwin Diaz with two out. He’d never faced Diaz before. Only seen him on TV. Pillar told himself he was taking the first pitch no matter what. It was a slider for a strike.
“I wanted to really just see the ball out of his hand, feel a little bit more comfortable with him,” Pillar says. “I felt like I saw it pretty good. Then he threw me another slider for a ball. I felt a little jumpy.
“But, look, there’s many times in my career where I’ve gone up there with nothing to lose. You know, tie games. It’s almost like a free at-bat. And I’ve tried to be the hero and I end up popping up or getting out. So, right there I was just trying to find a way to get on base.”
And there’s the evolved Kevin Pillar. The guy who’s trying to work counts, draw walks, not get in his own way. That’s the Pillar who’s leading the AL in hits and on pace to more than double his walk total from last year. And, what do you know, after taking those first two pitches, he got one he could barrel. And he hit it 412 feet.
And he got his picture, too. Pillar with his parents and his wife, in his mostly intact uniform, smiling like a kid after playing the hero on Mother’s Day. In this maddening game full of failures and flaws, the moment felt pretty perfect.
“For anyone that’s never hit a home run,” Pillar says, “it’s a feeling you can’t describe. It’s just pure joy. It’s the top of the mountain for a hitter. And, obviously, Mother’s Day makes it even more special.
“It’s a memory I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”