There was 6 feet of distance between reporter and player in what would be the final week of spring training. Though the coronavirus pandemic was just in its infancy, Major League Baseball took what it believed to be necessary precautions to keep players safe: no reporters in the clubhouse, and when the players spoke, social distancing was a requirement.
So, on this day, a high table with the Red Sox logo was the degree of separation. But Kevin Pillar has always found a way to make a connection.
Pillar had been one of the bright spots for the Sox this spring. The outfielder was 11 for 31 with two doubles. It’s a small sample size, sure, and spring training isn’t always indicative of what a player can accomplish in a season. The veteran in Pillar knows that.
He was coming into the season in a new frame of mind. He got in the “classroom,” as he calls it, before the start of camp and sat down with hitting coach Tim Hyers and his staff. They came up with a simple formula: Pillar, naturally a pull hitter, would stay up the middle.
“With that approach, it gives me a lot more room for error to hit the balls down the line,” Pillar said. “I think, historically, I’ve kind of been a little bit more of a pull hitter, and when I have gotten pitches over the plate to handle and hit them with the swing I had, a lot of my stuff was getting caught or run down.”
Pillar’s pull percentage for his career is 42.2, but last year he took that to the extreme: 48 percent, a career high. He hit .259 with the Blue Jays and Giants.
His new approach to stay up the middle allows Pillar to stay on pitches for longer and spray the whole field. It should enable him to turn on pitches just as much as going to right field.
“I feel like being able to open up that part of the field — especially here in Boston — is going to allow my slugging [percentage] to go up, my OPS to go up,” Pillar said. “That’s something that’s really important to me over the course of this offseason, especially, understanding how teams value players now.”
Pillar has a career on-base percentage of just .296 and has yet to reach a 5 percent walk rate for a season. He hopes his new approach can remedy that.
“My ability to drive the ball to all fields and understand the pitches I can handle and having the ability to lay off pitches that I don’t do damage on is going to allow me to hopefully walk more,” said Pillar.
There’s no set date for baseball to resume. There also isn’t any certainty that Pillar will be a starter when and if the season actually gets under way. Alex Verdugo, who was slated to start the season on the injured list, could be back by the time play commences, moving Pillar into more of a fourth outfielder role.
But if there is certainty, it falls on Pillar and what he feels he’s figured out at the plate.
“When you turn your field one way and the pitch shows up away and we’re thinking pull, the bat does some things that it’s not supposed to do,” Pillar explained.
For the Sox’ sake, Pillar’s spring numbers hopefully will serve as a mirror to his season.