As things stand, before free agency’s final buzzer, the Yankees have already solidified their starting outfield slots. Aaron Judge in right, Aaron Hicks in center, and the rising star of Clint Frazier in left. With Mike Tauchman in tow, the Yankees have four big league quality outfielders (and Tyler Wade). Still, however, Brett Gardner remains unsigned, and the team could stand to add a passable option in the outfield given the injury history across the three starters, as well as Tauchman’s storied struggles in 2020.
Of the slim pickings left, one option the Yankees might consider looking at is Kevin Pillar. Though he’s rightfully earned a reputation for web gem wizardry after years of dazzling plays, his superb timing and solid speed have compensated for his average jumps and noodle of an arm. After a career-year in 2016, in which Pillar posted 11 Outs Above Average according to Statcast, he’d been mostly above average, adding 2 OAA in 2018 and ’19, respectively.
Pillar posted a -2 OAA in 2020, in less than a third of his usual number of attempts. His sprint speed didn’t slip at all, but his jumps went from average to poor. Through August, Mike Trout too was experiencing the worst defensive season of his career by far. Similarly, it was Trout’s jumps that had negatively impacted his defensive metrics. Trout’s reasoning, as per The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya, was the way the ball sounds in a stadium full of fans versus an empty one with synthetic crowd noise. At the time, Trout said:
...I’m usually in the outfield seeing fans, talking to fans and just seeing and hearing that loud crowd noise. Obviously, it’s a little different when they just pour crowd noise in. It’s different in every stadium, but it’s definitely something you got to get used to.
Though it’s impossible to know if Trout’s diagnosis was accurate for himself, or can even be appropriately applied to Pillar’s case, it’s at least plausible that Pillar’s defense may have suffered from the unusual environs of the 2020 season. If he continues to hang on to foot speed faster than three-fourths of the league, he should at least be able to return to average defensively in 2021.
Offensively, Pillar doesn’t completely fit in with what the rest of the Yankees do, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He doesn’t hit for a ton of power, and when he does, it’s exclusively to the pull side. As a right-handed hitter, he won’t see much benefit from Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. However, he makes a ton of contact and rarely strikes out, leading to an expected batting percentage better than 86% of the majors and as strikeout rate better than two-thirds of hitters.
Though he doesn’t walk enough (at all) to have a legitimately great (or even good) offensive line, his combination of average power and above average contact could help rebalance the current Yankee roster’s heavy dependence upon boom or bust big strikeout power hitters (outside of DJ LeMahieu), or at least offer an alternative form of average offensive production.
In terms of a baseball and culture fit on the Yankees, Brett Gardner can’t be beat. He’s a Yankee lifer and while intermittently hyper-productive, his lefty swing is built for Yankee Stadium. If they re-sign him, Gardner walks into the fourth outfield slot. If the Yankees are unable to agree to terms, Pillar might not be such a bad fit for their extra outfield slot, competing with Mike Tauchman for time backing up Frazier. As a compliment to the lefty streaky, slap-happy hitter, but staunch defender that is Tauchman, Pillar’s known quantity would be a welcome addition.