Kevin Pillar’s reputation as a defensive whiz in center field contributed strongly to the Mets’ decision to sign the free-agent this offseason, but the metrics tell another story.
A plus defender in center as recently as 2018, according to Statcast — which measures outs above average — the 32-year-old Pillar regressed the past two seasons to the point at which he might be better suited for one of the corner outfield spots at this juncture of his career.
“If someone could sit me in a room and tell me how I could improve on X, Y and Z when it comes to the numbers, I would like to know,” Pillar said Saturday after a team workout in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“I do feel like I still can play at a high level in center field. I feel like being in this league for a long time, one of my greatest strengths is experience and understanding swings and how pitchers want to get guys out.”
As it stands, Brandon Nimmo will likely play most of the time in center field, with Dominic Smith in left, but that dynamic could also change if the universal designated hitter is implemented. With the DH in the National League, Nimmo could move to left, leaving Pillar the opportunity to play often in center.
Pillar, according to Statcast, was minus-one in outs above average as a center fielder last season, when he played for the Rockies and Red Sox. The previous year, he was minus-two in center for the Blue Jays and Giants. At his peak in 2016, Pillar was an outlandish plus-11 in outs above average in center for the Blue Jays. Nimmo was minus-four last season in outs above average as a center fielder.
Finding center-field defense was a priority this offseason for the Mets, who also signed Albert Almora Jr., a plus defender who hasn’t hit enough to warrant steady playing time. In Pillar, the Mets get a better bat — he had a slash line of .288/.336/.462 last year, the best offensive season of his career.
Pillar called it a “tough” year in that he had been non-tendered by the Giants as he was about to enter his final season of arbitration eligibility.
“Things I needed to improve on, especially on the offensive side of the ball, was something that I don’t feel last year was a coincidence,” Pillar said of his surge. “I think it was something that was learned. I saw the areas of my game that need to be improved on and I worked extremely hard in the offseason, in spring training, and worked on those areas that needed to be improved on.”
Pillar suspects some of his regression in center field might be tied to leaving Toronto, where he was comfortable, and then bouncing to three different teams in a short span.
“There’s things I am obviously aware of, things that I’m working my butt off to get better at, but ultimately I think the greatest compliment you can have as a player, especially a defender, is your pitchers want you out there,” Pillar said. “I’ve never had pitchers complain about me playing the outfield. They want me out there and know I am going to play hard every single day and that is the focus for me, just getting back to proving to people that I can still play at a high level.”
Mets manager Luis Rojas has familiarity with Pillar from winter ball in the Caribbean, but said it’s difficult to gauge whether the outfielder has lost anything defensively only a week into camp.
“Tool-wise he seems OK,” Rojas said. “We know he has been a plus outfielder, I think that is the value he is bringing here. We are planning on giving him exposure in center field and also right and left during camp, but I just haven’t seen anything that I can share with you: Where he was at when we saw him making those Superman catches and highlights or where he is right now.”
Whatever his role, Pillar says he’s thrilled to play for a team that has a chance to win.
“It maybe took a little bit longer [to sign] because this team is trying to win and they explored every possible avenue before they made this decision,” Pillar said. “They are trying to win now and I feel that me as a player, that’s where I am at in my career and a place I want to be.”