How Angels' Kevin Pillar's incredible run gives him control over his future: 'Finish the race' (2024)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Outfielder Kevin Pillar enlisted the help of a sports psychologist. This was just at the end of April, and Pillar was staring down a very difficult reality.

He was 35 years old and freshly released from the worst team in baseball — the Chicago White Sox — for a second time in about a month. He’d hit just .160. Much about his situation spelled the end to an otherwise solid MLB career.

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Leaving then, however, would mean the game would retire him. He wouldn’t be going out on his own terms. Leaving then would mean ending his career just 17 hits shy of 1,000 and two months shy of 10 years of service time.

And so, Pillar, out on a walk with his dog, needed to talk it out.

“He told me something very profound,” Pillar said of the psychologist. “It’s not really that profound. But the way he said it. He talked about all the things. About my offseason — I’d spent a lot of time, effort, money, time away from my family, to go all in on this year. Playing baseball. That was the goal, and the goal didn’t change. I put all my eggs in one basket.

“He said, ‘Finish the race.’ It was a very simple message. I got off the phone with him. I went home. I told my wife and my kids. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to finish this race.’”

Pillar and the Angels were a sensible marriage. Mike Trout got hurt and Aaron Hicks was designated for assignment within days of each other. The Angels, perpetually low on organizational depth, were in need of a body.

There was no way to know that Pillar would become their best hitter over the last month and one of the hottest bats in the game. He’s hit .389 with five homers and 21 RBIs in a 21-game span. His 14-game hitting streak ended Sunday, but he still reached base twice.

Kevin Pillar has a .400 batting average and 21 RBI in his 20 career games with the @Angels.
Over the last 20 seasons, the only other MLB player to hit .400 and have 20+ RBI through 20 career games with a team is Matt Holliday with St. Louis in 2009. pic.twitter.com/cYjUPbxzEG

— OptaSTATS (@OptaSTATS) June 2, 2024

Pillar, a West Hills, Calif., native, has many connections to the Angels despite not previously playing for them. His best friend in the game, Ryan Goins, is in his first year as Angels infield coach. They’re currently roommates. Pillar played for Atlanta last season, where current Angels manager Ron Washington and now-Angels third base coach Eric Young Sr. were coaches. Heck, even Angels broadcaster Mark Gubicza was Pillar’s high school coach more than 15 years ago.

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The Angels have given Pillar an opportunity to play. But Pillar’s production has given him an opportunity to enjoy playing the game instead of feeling like he has to survive day to day. And it has allowed him to exit this sport on his own terms, whenever he chooses.

“Do I think I’m capable of doing great things in this game? Absolutely,” Pillar said. “You just never know when this game is going to say your time is up.

“I’m playing every day not knowing when it could be my last at-bat. Or last time playing center field. Or last opportunity to get into a game. I’m not really trying to worry about the outcome of every individual at-bat or every individual pitch. I’m really just having an enjoyment.”

Toward the end of spring training, the White Sox released Pillar, only to re-sign him soon after. This time the contract was for $1 million. Had he made the majors under his initial contract, he would have earned $3 million.

Slights such as that are nothing new for Pillar, who was a 32nd-round draft pick after playing Division II college baseball. The last six years have been a perpetual back-and-forth of opportunity and disappointment.

Pillar was traded to the San Francisco Giants in April 2019, and then non-tendered at the end of the season. He started the shortened 2020 season with the Boston Red Sox before getting traded to the Colorado Rockies. When he was with the New York Mets in 2021, he missed time after getting hit in the face with a fastball. He signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2022, started the year in Triple A, got called up, and fractured his shoulder after four games. He played sparingly for the Braves in 2023. Then he signed with the White Sox. And, now, with the Angels.

That illustrates the obvious. Pillar has not been allowed to be comfortable. He never acquired anything resembling certainty late in his lengthy career. And all of that makes what he’s doing now even more fun.

“I don’t know if he’s thinking this is it,” Washington said. “But what he’s given to us, it’s God’s blessing. It’s a baseball god’s blessing. I just hope he continues it when he’s here. He’s always been a good ballplayer.”

Kevin Pillar puts the Halos ahead with a two-run homer! pic.twitter.com/AqXNvhbzb1

— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) May 29, 2024

Before signing with the Angels, Pillar was playing Legos with his kids at their Arizona home. He was at peace. His agent had been calling around, trying to find a team. And he even received a call from Goins about a potential opportunity with the Angels.

None of that was tangible, except for his two children — ages six and four. If he didn’t play baseball again, it would be OK, because he had them.

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But he’d prepared the entire offseason. He’d gone to spring training. He’d left his family, to give everything he had to play this season. Pillar still wanted that chance. He just knew he needed to be prepared for it not to come.

“My baseball journey in the minor leagues was all about that chip on my shoulder,” Pillar said. “At some point, I kind of had established myself, and I had lost that chip. I think it’s a normal thing. I think that someone can only be fueled by that for so long.

“The chip’s come back.”

When Trout got hurt, Pillar’s last best shot became official. He threw some clothes in a suitcase that had yet to be put away from his last trip. He packed his two bats in a golf bag and went to the airport, where he pleaded with the gate agent to allow him to take them on the trip.

He arrived at Angel Stadium with little time to spare before first pitch. And the rest is history. But really, it’s ongoing.

“He’s playing at a pretty damn high level. If he keeps it up over the next four or five months, what says you can’t do it again,” said Goins, who noted he used to receive offseason calls from Pillar after running until he threw up — all to make his older body stay young.

“In this game, where else can you go play for six months and make a couple million dollars?”

July 5. That’s a day that Pillar remembers without hesitation. That’s the day that he’ll hit 10 years of service time. Financially it means he’ll earn a full pension in retirement.

For Pillar, the difference in his pension is unimportant relative to the symbolic significance of what a decade in the sport truly means.

For the superstars that get big free-agent contracts, 10 years of service time is cool. It’s an inevitable date on their calendar. For a player like Pillar — who has been with nine different organizations since the start of 2019 — that 10 years of service time date will be hard-earned.

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It will allow him to go out on top, in his own way, whenever this crazy race ends.

“The thing that I wanted to accomplish more than anything, even more than the statistical accomplishments, and even more than reaching the 10 years,” Pillar said, “… I wanted to walk off the baseball field at the end of the season on my own terms.

“If I choose to not play next year, I want that to be my choice. A retirement is different when I say I’m doing it.”

(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

How Angels' Kevin Pillar's incredible run gives him control over his future: 'Finish the race' (1)How Angels' Kevin Pillar's incredible run gives him control over his future: 'Finish the race' (2)

Sam Blum is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Los Angeles Angels and Major League Baseball. Before joining The Athletic, he was a sports reporter for the Dallas Morning News. Previously, he covered Auburn for AL.com and the University of Virginia for The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.

How Angels' Kevin Pillar's incredible run gives him control over his future: 'Finish the race' (2024)
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