One of the biggest prospect stories of 2013 has been the progress of outfielder Kevin Pillar. The 24 year old from California was a 32nd round pick of the Blue Jays in 2011 and has shot up through the system like a rocket leaving all of teams he played with singing his praises as a ball player and as a person.*
Pillar played for Rookie-level Bluefield in the Appalachian League in his draft year and tore the league up with a .911 OPS that included 7 home runs, 8 stolen bases and a .347 batting average. Pillar bypassed Vancouver in 2012 and started the year in Class-A Lansing, putting up an .841 OPS in 375 plate appearances and hitting .323 with 20 doubles, 4 triples and 5 home runs in a notoriously big ball park.
In mid-July of 2011, Pillar was moved up to Advanced-A Dunedin and continued to rake. He hit .322 and although his OBP fell significantly (from .390 to .339, with an almost identical batting average) and his slugging dropped off, his adjustment to the higher level (and a league known to be tough on hitters) was almost seamless. Pillar continued to accrue awards and accolades: he was named the Midwest League MVP despite having fewer than 400 plate appearances and was named to the Midwest League mid-season and post-season All-Star teams as well as being named a Topps Class A All-Star and an MiLB.com organizational All-Star. Pillar continued to hit as he was sent to Arizona Fall League, hitting .371 in only 67 plate appearances.
At the beginning of this season, Anthony Gose had lost his prospect status. It wasn’t because he hadn’t performed well or because he was too old to have great things in front of him, it was simply that he played too much in the major leagues last year, losing his eligibility for rookie status.
He wasn’t bad in the major leagues either. Ok, he was bad in July/August, but he was very good in September, particularly when he was reunited with his hitting coach from AAA, Chad Mottola. Now 22, the 2008 2nd round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies out of Bellflower HS in California is now in his 6th year in the minors. Gose has always been known for his explosive speed, his impressive defense and his cannon of an arm. What has always been in doubt is his ability to hit for average, take walks, avoid strikeouts and generally get on base enough to make his speed count.
The taking walks part of the equation has been seemingly answered by Gose. In 2011, in New Hampshire, Gose hit a respectable .253/.349/.415 and added 70 stolen bases (with 15 caught stealing) to that number. He hit an impressive 16 home runs, which gave an indication that there was more power in his bat than people had counted on. He walked in over 10% of his plate appearances but struck out over 25% of the time but in the overall scheme of things, with a .349 OBP (almost 100 points higher than his batting average), he was definitely getting the job done.
The next year, in AAA Las Vegas, was his best yet. He hit .286/.366/.419 but saw a big drop in stolen bases (34) and was caught 12 times — almost as many as he was caught the previous year with more than twice as many successful steals. Despite the elevation and homer-happy environment of Las Vegas and the PCL, Gose hit only 5 home runs in 2012 with only about 100 fewer at bats than in 2012. In essence, if he was hitting them at the same rate, he should have hit about 12 or 13 in Las Vegas. Gose’s walk rate dropped ever so slightly, but was still above 10% and, most importantly, his strikeout rate had dropped by a whopping 5% (although it went up significantly in his time in the majors).
Overall, 2012 had its encouraging signs for Gose and, despite losing his prospect status, at the beginning of the 2013 pundits were wondering if he should be replacing Colby Rasmus as the Jays’ every day center fielder. Well, we all know that Rasmus has come out and given the Jays solid (if not above average) offensive production to go along with his very good (if not excellent) defense. Now, at the beginning of July, Gose is not being talked about at all, and Pillar’s name (especially lately) is being thrown around as being the next guy on the depth chart. So what happened?
Well, to begin with, Gose has played himself out of contention for a roster spot. Despite the fact that he told reporters early in the season that “I feel a little embarrassed I have to go back to the minor leagues. . . It’s more of a pride thing with me. I don’t want to go back.” While he might have been embarrassed to go back to the minors, he certainly shouldn’t be. Covering the minor leagues you learn that while merit is important, and you have to earn your time in The Show, there are issues far beyond how well a player plays that govern when and if you get your shot. With the players that the Jays have under contract right now who play his position (outfield) already entrenched and with the fact that the Jays are trying to compete for a playoff spot (or at least to improve their positioning within the division), there’s no room for a rookie to come up and learn how to play in the majors right now.
And Gose would be learning. He’s even struggling in AAA Buffalo right now. While he had a hot start and did see some time in the majors earlier this season, Gose has been awful of late. He’s hitting .216/.311/.298 with 10 stolen bases (and 7 caught stealing). He’s still taking his walks, but his strikeout ratio has increased to over 28%. He hasn’t hit over .210 in any month except for April (.250).
I’ve seen Gose play in Buffalo a few times and I can say that the one thing that I noticed that is VERY concerning is that he seems to have trouble recognizing breaking balls. On several occasions I saw him taking a breaking ball for strike three that clearly ended up in the zone. If this is a weakness that Triple-A pitchers are exploiting with regularity (80 strikeouts in 65 games), major league pitchers are going to tear him apart.
Gose’s numbers in very limited major league at bats (26 plate appearances) this year are actually much better (.304/.385/.391, 11.5% walk rate, 19.2% strikeout rate) and there could be something to the rapport and comfort-level that he and current Blue Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola have. However, having seen him hit in Buffalo where it looks like he’s unprepared, my gut feeling is that Gose needs more time.
Pillar, on the other hand, came out of the game in AA New Hampshire tearing up the league. He hit .313/.361/.441 in 327 plate appearances and stole 15 bases (although he was caught 8 times) and had 20 doubles, 2 triples and 5 home runs. He was also getting it done on defense, playing left and center field for the Fisher Cats. He has very good range-factor ratings as well as 12 outfield assists. Since moving up to Buffalo just a couple of weeks ago, he has set the International League on fire, hitting .382/.424/.691 for an unsustainable 1.115 OPS. Included in those numbers are 8 doubles and 3 home runs. Now, he does have a .400 BABIP right now, but throughout his minor league career, he has always had a high BABIP — his lowest career number is the .336 BABIP that he had in New Hampshire this year. I would look for that number to drop but not as much as you might think it will. His speed helps him beat out infield hits and I’ve already heard the Bisons radio broadcast team talk about how he’s been doing just that (when not hitting extra-base hits). Another thing pulling in Pillar’s favour is the fact that his walk and strikeout rates aren’t all that far off his career rates and his numbers in Buffalo are neither career highs or career lows.
Finally, there are the intangibles. While I’ve never heard anyone speak a bad word about Gose’s personality, everyone I talked to in New Hampshire and Lansing absolutely raves about Kevin Pillar. They love his competitive drive, his friendliness and his work-ethic. In fact, it’s one of the first things they tell you about him. Then, they talk about what a great ball player he is.**
So what are we learning about these players?
Gose continues to strike out a lot and may benefit from a reunion with Chat Mottola. He’s not putting the ball in play enough to take advantage of his speed and the fact that he’s getting caught stealing almost as much as he’s successful is concerning. Despite his speed and defense being major league ready, the other issues are really starting to get in his way.
Scouts have told me that they think Pillar is going to be a major leaguer at some point, but before this year many said that he’s a 4th outfielder or fringe guy (one who goes up and down between the minors and the majors his whole career) at best, but I think some are really changing their minds. While he doesn’t have the natural tools that Gose has, he has proven that he can be a better hitter, at least at the Double-A level and has really gotten off to a great start in Triple-A.
Pillar appears to have some of the things that can’t really be quantified by scouts like the ability to make adjustments and make solid contact continually and consistently. The ability to hit the ball hard against all levels of pitching is one that can only be discovered by testing a player and Pillar has shown that ability time and time again. Being less “toolsy” than Gose may have worked in his favour, allowing him to fly a little bit under the radar until he could prove himself at the highest levels of the minors. Alex Anthopoulos was recently quoted as saying that “reports are that he’s ready to come if we have a need,” adding even more fuel to the Pillar fire.
I think Kevin Pillar is unquestionably the top minor league outfielder the Jays have in their system right now. Will he get a shot this year? What do you think?
* MiLB.com had a nice story on Pillar back in May.
** Although I believe that his former teammate Kevin Nolan (Eastern League All-Star Shortstop) said that he was the best player he’s played with.