Jonathan Villar Shocks Us All

Though we knew that Jonathan Villar entered the 2016 season with the every day shortstop job in Milwaukee, we were so certain he wouldn’t hold onto that role for very long. You see, the Brewers had top prospect Orlando Arcia waiting in the wings at Triple-A, and we all figured he would be up by June. Instead, Villar got off to a strong start and then kept hitting, and Arcia didn’t end up debuting until August. The team eventually made room for both of them in their lineup, as Villar shifted over to third. Because Villar got that extended opportunity and ran with it (pun intended), he ended up ranking as the fourth most valuable third baseman (his shortstop rank will be published soon) and earning $26.40. How many of you expected him to earn even $10?!

Despite debuting back in 2013 with the Astros, this was actually Villar’s first full season in the Majors. He has always shown fantastic speed, a touch of power, and serious BABIP skills, meaning he was an intriguing fantasy asset if given the opportunity. But, we worried about Arcia and since Villar’s highest season wOBA heading into the year was just .328 and he had been atrocious defensively, we seemed justified to feel like he wasn’t going to last as a starter. While he continued to be brutal with the glove, both at shortstop and at third base, his offensive game improved enough to more than offset the runs he allowed on the field.

Villar swung at pitches outside the zone less frequently, which led to a drop in overall Swing% and served to push his walk rate well above the league average and to a new career high. His resultant .369 OBP made him a perfect leadoff hitter and led to 92 runs scored, to fantasy owners’ delight. Unfortunately, he still struck out often, but his SwStk% actually barely sits above the league average. His high strikeout rate is more an artifact of his patience, rather than his inability to make contact. That’s good, because he could seemingly change his approach to more aggression if he so chooses in the future, likely hurting his walk rate, but reducing his strikeout rate. Finding the perfect balance is important, but perhaps his current mix is that balance.

Probably the most surprising aspect of Villar’s performance was his sudden power outburst. Of course, the league enjoyed a surge, but Villar had come into the season with a career ISO of just .117 and HR/FB rate a league averageish 11.1%. This season, his ISO spiked to .171 and HR/FB rate nearly doubled to 19.6%. It was supported by a jump in Hard% from the mid-to-high 20% range to 35.1%. His fly ball exit velocity sat at 88.3, ranking a mediocre 178 out of 413, while his Brls/BBE of 6.4% ranked 189th. So his Statcast metrics were quite unimpressive and support closer to league average power and HR/FB rates. It’s probably no surprise that we should come to such a conclusion as Villar never hinted at this type of power potential in the past. I’d figure some major HR/FB rate regression next year back into the low teens.

Villar has always been a runner, but had never stolen more than 49 bases across all levels during a season. However, if you look at his PA/SB rates, he has actually been at this level every single year except for 2010. In other words, this wasn’t out of character and doesn’t appear very fluky. We weren’t prepared for it since he hadn’t received anywhere close to an extended opportunity to show off his wheels, but he had shown the skills. And the stolen base total didn’t exactly surprise me!

It’s understandable though if you’re concerned about his stolen base total holding up. His OBP was propped up by a .373 BABIP, a mark that ranked fourth highest in baseball. A high BABIP is nothing new for him, of course, as he came into the year with a career .322 BABIP (though in just 658 plate appearances) and marks of at least .358 during all three of his stints at Triple-A since 2013. His xBABIP still sat at a robust .340, which both highlights his legit high BABIP skills, but also that there is obviously some downside. No one has sustainable .370+ BABIP skills. A regression in BABIP is going to hurt his batting average and all his counting stats, including those highly valuable steals.

I think some of the hidden risk here is driven by his awful defense. Any sort of slump could result in a feeling that 2016 was a fluke and could land him on the bench. But if he managed to remain a full-timer all season, I think he’s a pretty safe bet for at least 10 homers and 40 steals. That’s probably his floor, which is quite valuable. The other risk is that he’s quite dependent on an inflated BABIP. He clearly owns the skills to post one, but that leads to far more downside than upside. This all means he could bat .240.

Earlier in the week, Jeff Zimmerman posted the results of two early NFBC drafts. Villar was selected 24th and 28th, so basically a second to third rounder. That’s certainly not crazy, though there’s little chance he would end up on my team at that price. Then again, I’d rather Villar then Xander Bogaerts (obviously!), who went 22nd and 24th, respectively, in those same drafts.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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7 years ago

you could add to the section of his statcast metrics that his average launch angle was 5.5 degrees, which is the 11th lowest average angle of all regulars last season. Adds more the homer regression.