Getting to Know New Red Sox Outfielder Kevin Pillar
One of the biggest gaps in the Red Sox roster entering Spring Training was outfield depth. In 2019, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts handled the vast majority of playing time in the outfield, with J.D. Martinez filling in on occasion when he wasn’t designated hitter. Several other players spent limited time filling in when one of the starters was injured or needed rest; of those players, however, only Tzu-Wei Lin is still a member of the Red Sox organization, and he’s primarily an infielder. Boston did trade for outfielder Alex Verdugo from the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Betts, of course, was sent from Boston to LA as part of the deal, so it did nothing to improve depth. Were any of the starters to miss extended time in 2020, the Sox were at risk of having Martinez spend a lot of time in the outfield, and he’s not exactly a stellar fielder (to put it nicely). New second baseman Jose Peraza played 29 games in the outfield in 2019, but is an infielder by trade. Clearly, outfield depth was not a strength of this team. That problem has been (at least partially) solved with the signing of Kevin Pillar.
Kevin Pillar spent the first six seasons of his major league career with the Toronto Blue Jays before being traded to the San Francisco Giants in April of last year. He has long been known as a great fielder, and was a Gold Glove finalist in 2015 and 2016. Some of his defensive highlights, like this, this, and this, are awesome. Given the loss of Betts, who has won the Gold Glove four consecutive seasons, signing another elite defensive outfielder was a fantastic move for the Sox to make.
Something Pillar has not been known to be is a fearsome hitter. He has a career OPS of .701, and has only hit over 20 home runs once. That said, he has been trending in the right direction recently. Last year he had his career highs in batting average (.259), slugging percentage (.432), OPS (.719), and home runs (21). The batting average and slugging percentage are perfectly respectable, and he could honestly be a solid hitter if he walked more frequently. He only walked in 2.8% of his plate appearances in 2019, which ranked dead last out of 135 qualified hitters. It caused him to have an on-base percentage of only .287 despite having an average of .259. The 2.8% walk-rate was the lowest of his career, but his career walk-rate of 3.6% does little to inspire hope in a drastic improvement.
That said, a move to Fenway could help Pillar produce at a higher rate. He’s a righty who pulls the ball 48% of the time. He hits far too many groundballs (44.1% of the balls he put in play were hit on the ground a season ago) and he hits the ball soft way too often (20.2% soft-hit rate in 2019, 14th highest in MLB), but it’s possible that the short distance to the monster at Fenway could turn some of his soft fly balls into short homers.
Regardless, barring injuries or roster moves, Pillar won’t be anything other than a part-time player in 2020. He should fill that role very well, and even if his hitting isn’t anything special, his phenomenal fielding ability makes him an above-average player. It will certainly be better having Pillar as Boston’s fourth outfielder than J.D. Martinez.