By ROBERT MACLEOD
Saturday, May 19, 2018
TORONTO -- We have seen this before from Kevin Pillar - solid offensive contributions early in a season before his bat turns to balsa wood and his production starts to fizzle.
And the question most followers of the Toronto Blue Jays will ask this season, with Pillar off to one of his best offensive bursts of his career, is, how long can he maintain the pace?
Heading into Friday's game at Rogers Centre against the Oakland Athletics, Pillar's hitting over the first seven weeks of the season has been a delight in an otherwise murky start by the American League team.
Pillar was hitting a team-best (among regulars) .308, including 18 doubles, which leads all players in the majors. He is tied for fifth among AL batters in extra-base hits (24), tied for seventh in multihit games (16) and tied for 10th in hits (52).
No wonder Toronto manager John Gibbons, whose team lost 10 of its previous 15 games heading into the second game of the four-game series against the A's, is finding it difficult to provide the starting centre fielder with a day off.
On Friday night, Pillar made his 45th successive start, the only Blue Jay to have started every game this season.
The plan going in to this year, Gibbons said, was to try to give all players a break now and then in order to help ensure their health and welfare over the 162-game regular-season grind. With Pillar, Gibbons said, that has been impossible because "he's been playing so damn good."
Always gifted defensively - his often acrobatic, gravity-defying headlong dives to make seemingly impossible catches has earned him the nickname Superman - Pillar's offence has been a welcome bonus.
Gibbons said this is the best over all clip he has seen Pillar, in his sixth season, consistently perform in all aspects of the game.
"He's driving balls the other way," Gibbons said when asked what he's seen differently from Pillar offensively this season. "That's who he always was on his way up to the big leagues and I think he got away from it.
"He's learning who he is and he's learning about the league and he's having a hell of a year."
Pillar, never shy in the confidence department, said he has no doubt he will be able to continue his offence this season.
"This year I've been pretty consistent in my set-up and my stance and my swing," Pillar said. "It's something I'm really not trying to change a whole lot. Even if there are some struggles I've had success with what I'm doing.
"Now I'm just trying to repeat it every single day."
Consistently a .300-plus hitter during his ascent through the minors, Pillar has never been able to transfer that success into the big leagues, where he has a career .267 average.
But when it comes to hitting at the bigleague level, Pillar has always been somewhat of a tease.
Last season, when he batted lead off more than any other Blue Jay (58 times), Pillar was hot over the first month of the season, batting .301.
But he faltered after that, batting .246 the rest of the way, including .212 in June and .211 in July. He finished the season with a .256 average.
This season, the Blue Jays have given no real thought to batting Pillar in the lead off spot, mostly slotting him in in the five-hole. The middle-of-the-order placing seems to agree with the 29-year-old and he has become more selective at the plate as a result.
Last year, Pillar saw an average of 3.51 pitchers for each plate appearance. This year that number has increased substantially to 3.90.
Pillar said hitting lower in the lineup gives him an added comfort level.
"But I've also matured in the sense that, when I was leading off, I was really just trying to be super aggressive, trying to capitalize on the first pitch of the game," he said. "I think my pitches per plate appearance have gone up this year, too, understanding that I don't need to swing at anything and everything that comes up there. I don't need to swing at all the strikes.
"I need to have a good plan and wait for mistakes."
Entering Friday's game, Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar was hitting .308 and has 18 doubles, which is the most in the major leagues.
TOM SZCZERBOWSKI/GETTY IMAGES