The Elusive Concept of “Development”: Part 1 – The Curious Case of Kevin Pillar

 

Anthony Gose
Anthony Gose

 

The idea of player development has come up here and there this offseason on Twitter and in some of the discussions that we’ve had in the back channels of the Jays Journal staff.

 

 

Some people have argued that the Blue Jays have been very bad at developing their young players and, while there haven’t been many players break through to stardom at the major league level from the Blue Jays’ minor leagues, the concept of “development” is a much more complex issue than the way that these people talk about it.

 

When bloggers or fans discuss the Blue Jays’ development system, they say that the team doesn’t know how to keep pitchers healthy or develop hitters into major leaguers but there’s never any information about the details of such failures. This is one of the two things that really bother me when people discuss a lack of development: there are never any details. The fact is that the Blue Jays keep their minor league processes very quiet and don’t really talk about them. They also are very good at deflecting question with generalities.

 

Unfortunately, generalities are pretty much useless when it comes to player development. This leads me to my second pet peeve about discussing minor league player development: there is no monolithic “system.” Ok, there are certain strategies that teams implement organizationally. For instance, the Blue Jays like to teach all their pitchers a changeup and I’m sure that there are organization-wide strength and conditioning programs for players to follow. But the player development staff is dealing with a range of individual players and no single system will work for everyone.

 

I have a lot of experience in the world of “development.” Although my expertise is in the field of music and not baseball, there are many common factors in developing elite talents in both fields. I’ve been teaching music at all levels and in just about as many possible contexts as you can imagine for more than 15 years and I can tell you that individuals are far more important than any system when it comes to turning talent into skills. This is why a large component of any program to develop professional musicians is in one-on-one training. Musicians aren’t all given a program of action and told to go practice it on their own; they’re given direct supervision by an experienced teacher to personalize their training to target weaknesses and help the student realize his or her strengths.

 

Yes, there is such a thing as talent. You can obviously tell when you see someone like Anthony Gose fire a ball in from the outfield or run the bases. The raw tools that you can easily detect when a player takes batting practice or throws a 95 mph fastball in the bullpen are a stepping stone to becoming a player at the top level. That’s what scouting does. Scouting identifies young men with the tools that might one day allow them to become that top level of player.

 

I see this all the time when I’m teaching music. I can tell that some students have terrific ears for music early on (usually within about 20 minutes of starting to teach someone). I can tell when students have great muscle coordination required to play fast passages on an instrument. These tools alone won’t make them a great musician.

 

There’s another aspect of developing a baseball player or a musician; it’s something that I’ll call skill acquisition aptitude. This is a lot harder to quantify but, in short, skill acquisition aptitude is the ability to improve. It’s not “work ethic” although reaching high levels of sport or music require that too. It’s not even intelligence although it is a kind of intelligence. It’s the ability to internalize and understand the necessary steps required to get better.

 

 

Musicians practice their methods of sound production, their scales (technical finger passages) and their pieces of music for hours and hours. Seriously. I don’t want to even begin to tally the amount I’ve time I’ve sat in a room alone with an instrument and practiced repetitive exercises. These exercises made the production of sounds or my ability to play quickly second nature. It also made the instrument (on my best days) an extension of my self.

 

Similarly, in baseball, practicing hitting against a wall with a tennis ball or pitching to an imaginary box on a wall for hours a day after school will sharpen skills but it needs to be done the right way and a player with skill acquisition aptitude will figure that out, even on his own. The muscle memory that is built through drills in the schoolyard, batting cage, in a bullpen or on a ball field will serve the developing player in good stead but it’s not the complete answer.

 

In music, a player who can play all their scales at astonishing speed is not necessarily a musician. Both music and baseball require an extra level of finesse. In music, we call it the “art” or the “soul” of the music. It’s the defining factor that we all can recognize when it isn’t there in competent yet mechanical or soulless performances.

 

In baseball, this finesse has more to do with an understanding of the game. For a pitcher, it’s an understanding of how to set up a hitter and how to exploit his weaknesses. For a hitter, it’s how to anticipate what a pitcher might throw, how to hit “pitcher’s pitches” and having a knack for getting the barrel of the bat on the ball. For a fielder, it’s a sense of where the ball is going to be before it’s even hit or pitched. This finesse, or the “art” of baseball*, is what separates the good from the great, the minor leaguers from the major leaguers and it’s what gets players who may not have the same level of talent or tools far beyond the players who might get all the attention due to their athleticism.

 

As you can see, there are three elements that go into producing an elite level player: tools, skill acquisition aptitude and finesse. Every player has a different combination of all three and the skill acquisition aptitude and finesse are impossible to quantify. Assessing the combination of these three elements is the first step in recognizing the best way to get the most out of a particular player. This is why the draft is so important and why we get players coming out of the later rounds of the draft to make the major leagues, like Kevin Pillar, who was used as an example of player development on Twitter the other day.

 

 

Yes, Kevin Pillar is a success story, but I would argue against the idea that he’s a success story for “development.” Why did Kevin Pillar make it to the majors after dominating all of the minor leagues in which he played for three seasons? Pillar has never hit lower than .299 at any level of the minors.

 

Despite never showing any of the elite level tools that someone like Gose has, he has consistently done better than him. Why? I’d argue that Pillar scores very high on the other two elements of development: the skill acquisition aptitude and finesse for the game. The fact that Pillar has hit consistently well at all minor league levels shows that he’s probably not doing a lot of improvement throughout his minor league tenure. He’s already built the skills (through his high level of skill acquisition aptitude) at an earlier point in time and he has been able to “think the game” (the finesse element) at a much higher level than his competition until he reached the majors.

 

What we see with Pillar is that, once he hit Triple-A, his already developed abilities and finesse began to show signs of being tested to the limit. While, up to the Double-A level, Pillar’s strikeout rates have been very low, they took a jump in Triple-A to 17.9%, which was the highest it has ever been in the minors (outside of his 67 at bats in the Arizona Fall League in 2012). His strikeout rate is really the one warning sign that Pillar was approaching the ceiling of his current abilities.

 

His initial exposure to the major leagues were probably a somewhat rude awakening for Pillar, hitting only .206/.250/.333 in 110 plate appearances. His walks dropped to just 3.4% and his strikeouts jumped to 26.4%. We are dealing with a small sample size but, seeing him play against major league competition last year, he looked overwhelmed.

 

Does this speak any less of Kevin Pillar? Absolutely not. What it tells us is that Pillar was pretty much a finished product coming out of college, able to think and play the game at a much higher level than his competition up to Double-A and he was still able to get the job done at a high level in Triple-A. Things change at the major league level as more scouting information is available to pitchers (as well as hitter) and players are far more adept at out-thinking each other. Only the cream of the crop make it to The Show and those are the ones who have developed their skills and their finesse to the highest level. Additionally, Pillar was competing against pitchers who likely shared his high levels of skill and finesse but had better tools to use against him than he had regularly seen in the minors.

 

Should Kevin Pillar be written off? Absolutely not. Despite being 25 already, he still has the basic mental equipment to be successful but needs to show that he can adapt to the higher level of competition by sharpening his skills and taking his understanding of the game to another level. He also needs to learn to stay within himself and figure out how to play to his own strengths. Since we’ve seen such dominance at the other minor league levels, I’m sure that he has it within him to make this adjustment and find some measure of success at the big league level. How much success he has depends on how much finesse he can find in his game.

 

In Part 1 of this series, I’ve discussed the three pillars of elite talent development — tools, skill acquisition aptitude and finesse — and used them to demonstrate why I wouldn’t consider Kevin Pillar to be a “development” success story. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where we go into much more detail about how individualized attention is the only way that players are going to improve no matter how good the “system” is.

 

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*If you want to read a great book that describes this type of finesse beautifully, read The Art of Fielding by Chuck Harbach.

  • I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here. Personally, I was a decent soccer player, but my real development didn’t begin until I pushed myself harder and paid attention to a lot of the little things my high school coach emphasized. I excelled in high school and was pretty well prepared for college soccer, but improvements were necessary. So I took the same approach to that as well and became a pretty good outside back. The thing was, I was playing D-3, a far cry from the top collegiate level.

    What I noticed is you can have the aptitude to do it right, but you make lack the elite skills, which is similar to what you say about Pillar. Pillar, however, reminds me a lot of Pedroia, granted he’s a bit older than Pedroia was when he reached Pro level. They got to that level in the same amount of time.

    The key differences are the K:BB ratio on any level. Clearly Pedroia doesn’t K much. In 2006, Pedroia slashed a line of .191/.258/.303 in 98 PA compared to a Pillar .206/.250/.333 in 110 PA. In the final 40 ABs for Pedey, he went .256/.347/.395 (Pillar .250/.268/.450 in final 40 ABs).

    They are both max effort guys who have to play hard for their best results. The words coming out of the mouths of players is “smartest” and/or “best ballplayer I’ve been around.” Pedroia garnered similar comments.

    I think the biggest key for Pillar will be a slightly more patient approach. His low BB% seems to be a key difference separating him from Pedroia. I know the detractors of this will say “Pedroia was an MVP” (he was great down the stretch, but debatable) and a former Rookie of the Year (he struggled badly to start 2007, Francona stayed with him and he turned it around), but a few adjustments and the Blue Jays may have found themselves a solid #2 hitter. If the .OBP goes up, maybe even leadoff. At worst, he’s a better Reed Johnson and that’s not really all that bad.

    • Jay Blue

      I agree completely, Juice. I think Pillar has the potential to be a solid major league fourth outfielder at the very least and I think he’ll reach that potential within the next couple of years. People make the Reed Johnson comparison a lot and I think that’s fair but I also think that Pillar could be compared to Frank Catalanotto too. Pillar’s always had a good ISO which leads me to believe that he might even have some more pop in his bat than either Johnson or Catalanotto.