The nickname is appropriate as we have all seen Kevin Pillar launch himself into the air after covering 80 feet and reaching speeds of nearly 20 m.p.h. It seems like these types of catches are a nightly occurrence for Pillar.
Does anyone remember back a few years ago when there were cries from Nationals fans saying that Bryce Harper needed to play with a more cautious style? "He can't be this reckless and stay in the lineup!" the experts cried. I certainly don't hear any of that talk from Blue Jays fans because the way he plays defense is exactly what keeps him in the Jays line up. Look no further than FanGraphs value rating for Pillar in 2015 (based on runs above average):
*Only two other outfielders ranked higher defensively than Pillar with more than 1000 innings played in 2015*
Amateur outfielders will certainly notice and admire the way Pillar plays without any fear or concern for his own personal wellbeing. In addition to his fearless nature, I would also like to point out two other factors that allow Pillar to take the risks that he does on a nightly basis:
1. Refined decision making ability
2. Playing center field
Refined decision making ability:
With the extensive list of highlight reel catches it is shocking that Pillar rarely dives and comes up empty. When you lay it on the line as often as he does, you would expect to come up empty more often and have to do the "run of shame" in pursuit of a ball rolling toward the outfield fence. If you watch a lot of Blue Jays games, however, this just doesn't happen very often. I attribute this to a couple factors:
-When Pillar commits to making a play, he is ALL IN. You don't see him stutter step or hesitate in any of his routes.
-My guess is that he took advantage of live BP prior to reaching the big leagues. With the insanely high workload during an MLB season, I wouldn't expect that Pillar is laying out during BP at Rogers Centre but I imagine that he took the saying "practice like you play" to heart up until his debut in 2013. By playing regular depth in practice and going full speed during thousands of reps he was able to determine exactly which balls he had a chance to catch and which were beyond his range. Each day he would gain a better understanding of the factors that influence his ability to make a play. Factors such as field conditions, his jump, the trajectory of the ball, and how hard the ball was hit.
-During BP outfielders need to work on gather more information at the point of contact. Details such as:
1. Bat angle
2. Pitch location
3. Pitch type/velocity
4. Quality of contact (end of the bat vs barrel vs handle)
Playing Center Field:
Compared to playing a corner outfield position, center fielders have the luxury of taking more risks on balls in the gaps because they always have coverage from a teammate. In contrast, if a corner outfielder dives for a ball down the foul line and comes up empty he is in a world of trouble with no teammate in a position to back him up. This error in judgement will cost his team at least two additional bases if he can't find a way to keep it in front of him.
To review, I think there are a few lessons to be learned from watching Kevin Pillar patrol the outfield:
1. Have a mindset where you are on defense to MAKE PLAYS, not avoid making errors
2. Use live BP to refine your decision making ability and get a good feel for your range
3. Understand that your risk tolerance in the outfield changes with the position you playing and the game situation