Interview with Kevin Pillar — Arizona Fall League Standout
Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions today, Kevin.
I see you’re originally from the Los Angeles area. Were you a baseball fan growing up? At what point during your early exposure to the sport – be it at the little league, PONY, Babe Ruth, or High School level – did you realize you could have a future as a ball player?
Being from Los Angeles, I grew up as a Dodgers fan. Some of my favorite moments as a kid were going to Dodgers games with my family and friends and I remember developing a love and passion for baseball at a young age watching and attending these games. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I decided that maybe I could have a future in baseball. At the point in time my focus turned from being an athlete playing football and basketball in high school, to working towards finding a place to play collegiate baseball.
You attended Cal State – Dominguez Hills before joining the Blue Jays farm system as a 32nd Round pick in the 2011 draft. You were also recruited by such schools as Loyola Marymount, Fresno State, UCLA, Gonzaga, Sonoma State, New Mexico State, and Nevada. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Cal State served as an excellent springboard into a professional baseball career. What separated Cal State from the rest?
Fresno State was a school I really wanted to go to because my brother was a student there and I thought it would be way cool to attend college with my older brother. UCLA was also a dream school of mine ever since I was a little kid. The reason I choice Cal State Dominguez Hills was because they gave me an opportunity to play there, while at all these other schools my future as a ball player was not guaranteed. Cal State Dominguez hills also gave me an opportunity to come in right away and earn playing time. I also had an instant connection with Head Coach Murphy Su’a who remains a close mentor of mine.
During your junior year with the Toros you were able to sustain a 54-game hitting streak, setting a Division II record. I guess I have to inquire into that amazing accomplishment. Once your streak got into 20’s the 30’s – flirting with school and conference records – it appears you gained a lot of attention. In the 50’s you had the Los Angeles Times writing about you. What was that experience like for you? How were you able to keep accumulating knocks amidst all the attention and hype?
That experience of that hit streak was unlike anything else that I had ever experienced in my life. First, the baseball aspect of being locked in for 54 for straight games and being able to help my team reach and host a regional tournament was very special. The hit streak, like you mentioned, did not necessarily gain a whole lot of attention until I closed in on the school record at 23. Following that, the streak kind of took a snowball effect as it reached the conference record at 33 games. After that, the snowball became bigger then I would have ever thought when the Los Angeles times came out for an interview. I will admit, throughout the whole process I did not feel the pressure of breaking this record until the night before games 49 and 50, which was a Saturday doubleheader that would not only allow me to tie the Division II record, but also break it. Needless to say, I was able to accomplish it. The streak will definitely go down as an incredible journey and highlight in not only my baseball career, but my life.
Your streak ended in the CCAA Conference Tournament, when you were 0-for-2 with a groundout and fly out in your first two at bats. In your last two at bats of that game, however, you were intentionally walked and hit by a pitch. Revelry of setting a collegiate record aside, was that frustrating for you; having the bat taken out of your hands on in both at bats and not being able to end the streak on your own terms? I know you were close to the all-division hitting streak record of 60 games.
Yes, it was definitely extremely frustrating because UCSD was a huge rival of ours with whom we accumulated some bad blood. Anytime you have a chance to make history or accomplish something you would like your outcome to be determined by something you did, rather than something you did not have a chance to do. The ironic thing about this was it was the only time that we beat UCSD that year.
It can difficult for student athletes to balance athletic obligations with academic responsibilities. What did you major in at Cal State? Also, as a professional athlete, have you suddenly found yourself with an abundance of free time, or is training and competition much more consuming than it was in college?
I majored and completed my degree in business with an emphasis in sports, entertainment, and hospitality. I would definitely say you have a lot more free time as a professional athlete compared to being a collegiate athlete, but a lot of that free time is used towards bettering your career such as training, working out, and treatment.
You began your time in the Blue Jays system with Rookie-class Bluefield of the Appalachian League. With Bluefield, you led the league with a .347 batting average. You were also able to rack up 17 doubles, three triples and 37 RBIs. It looks like you picked up right where you left off in your senior year with Cal State when you hit .369 with 6 homeruns, 21 doubles, 3 triples and 36 RBIs. How did the level of play in the Appalachian League compare with that of your Division II schedule?
The level of competition was definitely better than what I faced at Cal State – Dominguez Hills. That is not to discredit the competition at the Division II School I played for, but rookie ball was definitely the next step up. I would say the principles and attention to detail that I learned at CSUDH helped me achieve success in my first professional season.
You started your 2012 season in Class-A Lansing where you obviously excelled, posting a .322 batting average with 5 homeruns, 57 RBIs and 35 stolen bases before your elevation to High-A Dunedin in mid-July. How did you enjoy playing in Lansing? I know Cooley Law School Stadium is one of the largest Class-A parks in the United States.
I really enjoyed my stay in Lansing. Lansing is an awesome town, with a high baseball IQ and passion for the game. Cooley Law School Stadium, although was a tough park to hit balls out of, was definitely a cool place to call home while I was there.
Upon elevation to High-A Dunedin, you continued your success, posting a .323 average with 34 RBIs in 164 at bats. What was it like being transplanted into a new team three months into the season? Between the 1,000 mile move and the higher level of play, what sort of adjustments did that require on a personal and athletic level?
Joining a new team with guys that I had only had limited contact with during spring training was definitely an adjustment. Naturally there is a pressure that you put on yourself to not only perform, but to fit in with guys that have been gelling for multiple months. After I got over trying to do too much to prove myself and was able to just be myself, I was able to call Dunedin home after a week. As far as adjustments I had to make physically on the field, the speed of the game was faster, with pitchers who more consistently throw different pitches for strikes. The beauty of baseball is the game remains the same from high school to the big leagues with just the speed of the game changing.
When did you learn that the Blue Jays selected you as one of the organization’s eight participants in the Arizona Fall League? What was your initial reaction to the news that your 2012 campaign would be prolonged?
It was the day the Arizona Fall League rosters came out, which I believe was in the middle of September. I came in from batting practice and looked at my phone and had a couple missed calls, text messages, and a couple tweets, which were more than usual. I read the tweets and texts that said “congrats on the AFL selection” and was at a loss for words. At that point I knew that the season I had put together did not go unnoticed and I would get a huge opportunity to play with the best prospects in baseball.
At the time of this interview you are fresh off a three-hit performance against Phoenix. That means in 29 Arizona Fall League at bats you’re sporting an incredible .448 average and .500 on-base-percentage. I understand that during the first few weeks of the season you received limited playing time, only playing Wednesdays and Saturdays. It seems like in the last week or so Rafters’ manager Matt Williams has deviated from this schedule and you’re receiving more plate opportunities. Is this change in playing time a result of your success at the plate, or was it always part of the plan?
I came into the Fall League on what they call the “taxi squads,” which is for players who are only activated on Wednesday and Saturdays. I knew that it would be a huge adjustment since I was used to playing every day, but looked at it as another challenge to overcome. Due to an unfortunate bad hop ground ball that resulted in a concussion to one of our players, I was activated off the taxi squad and was given a huge opportunity by our manager Matt Williams to receive more playing time.
I’ve heard great things about Matt Williams as a coach with the Diamondbacks. How has your experience with him as a manager been?
Matt has been great. He knows baseball inside and out and is so knowledgeable. The thing that has stood out the most to me is his love for the game. He brings so much energy to batting practice and the games every day. He is still just a big kid.
What is the daily routine of an AFL player? What did you do on your last off-day?
It depends on whether it’s a day or night game. For day games I would be get up around 7:30 and get to the field for breakfast. Next I’d get my uniform on and either take the bus to the game or go out and stretch. Following stretch is batting practice. After batting practice, depending on whether I’m playing that day or not, I would go to the weight room and lift. On days that I am playing I will eat lunch, shower, hot tub, shower then get dressed. After, I will go back to the cage for a couple more swings and head out to the field to get loose and play the game. Following the game we have a post-game meal, shower and head home. Then we do it all again the next day!
On my last day off I played golf with one of the coaches and six of the guys in a two-team, four man scramble golf match. It was really fun even though my team lost.
Teams in the AFL are composed of some of the top prospects in the minors. Obviously your current stats do not reflect any need for adjustment, but is the heightened level of competition noticeable on the field?
Yeah the game is still the same but the talent on the field is definitely noticeable. It is not only fun to compete with the best prospects, but on my off days I enjoy watching these players.
Your 2012 season began in the first week of April and won’t end until the third week in November. Your numbers do not evidence any signs of fatigue, but are you tired?
I pride myself on being in good shape and doing whatever it takes to stay on the field. The season has definitely been a long one, and fatigue has crept in from time to time. I’m not going admit that I’m tired, but I know when the fall league ends I will definitely need some time off.
I find it hard to believe that a player who sets a national collegiate record would go in the 32nd Round. Do you think front offices’ recent emphasis on sabermetrics and their undervaluation of intangibles like clutch and poise had an effect on your low draft pick?
I think the draft system is an imperfect science, and I do think that they base too much emphasis on “potential” rather than what they see when scouting a player in person. I have no complaints about what happened in the draft because it has given me a chip on my shoulder, and has me out to prove people wrong.
Obviously you are now playing at a higher level than many players in other organizations who were drafted ahead of you. To what extent do you believe your relatively low draft pick is a “chip on your shoulder,” or a constant invitation to yourself to push yourself to the next level?
Yeah it’s definitely a chip on my shoulder, but a thing of the past now. Regardless of whether I was a 1st round pick or an undrafted free agent I would have the same desire to prove myself and be an impact player in the big leagues. Being a low draft pick will always fuel me and motivate me though.
Do you have any pregame rituals?
I don’t have any pre-game rituals. I just like to use the hot and cold tub if possible to loosen my body and I like to hit in the cage with my uniform on before going out for pre-game stretch.
What is your walkup song? Or, if you don’t have one, what would you like your walkup song to be?
We don’t use walk up songs in the AFL but in Lansing and Dunedin I used the song “Dancing in the Moonlight” by Toploader. It has been my walk up song since my freshmen year of college and will always be my walk up song.
The basketball season begins today. Having grown up in the Los Angeles Area, are you a Lakers fan? How do you like their chances this season?
I am a huge Lakers fan and am extremely excited and optimistic about the Lakers this year. However, I am also realistic and know how chemistry plays a huge factor in success and I know that it will take a little bit for the Lakers to click. But once they do, they will be unstoppable.
Thanks so much for your time. Good luck in the rest of your season. Many Jays fans have been tracking your progress. I hope to see you in Buffalo this spring and Toronto in the near future.Follow @aaabisonsblog