It’s not like we need to talk about Jonathan Villar. We have all seen what he’s doing. But when a guy seemingly comes out of nowhere to become a top-10 fantasy player, it’s usually a big deal. What gives? Who cares. We’re here now. Let’s talk about Jonathan Villar.
Villar is on pace to hit 13 home runs, steal 60 bases, and bat .292. That’s 2014 Jose Altuve, but more power and less batting average. We’ll check the validity of all those paces in a second. The middle one is really not open for much contention, though. It took 16 games for Villar to steal his first two bases this year, but he hasn’t gone more than five games since without successfully swiping a bag. With 21 steals in the 45 games since April 23, he’s basically taking an extra base every other day. Billy Hamilton who?
Neither the speed nor power should have caught any of us by surprise. All of it is well-documented, dating back to 2014. Blake Murphy gave Villar his due back then, noting a 10-homer, 30-steal, .250 hitter is “immensely valuable” given the paucity of talent at shortstop. That has obviously changed this year, what with Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa and all that jazz. (Despite their presences, Villar still holds his own.)
Justin Mason and I also discussed Villar this preseason. We both noted Villar could serve as a cheap source of speed, with the only real threat to his value the anticipation of Orlando Arcia’s arrival in Milwaukee. From the start, it was always about if Villar could keep his head above water. He has, obviously. But maybe the concerns were a little overblown. Villar is a cheap building piece — he’s young, and he’ll be cost-controlled for several more years. He would better serve a rebuilding Brewers ballclub than an expensive, floundering Aaron Hill.
But I digress. Lastly, Eno Sarris talked about Villar in April, but for a different reason: Villar had shaved several percentage points off his swing and chase rates and improved his contact rate. Granted, it was only in 43 plate appearances, but the point was these are the kinds of things that stabilize quickly.
Villar had already shown this improvement last year. I touched upon it here: Villar hadn’t yet cut down on his chase rate (O-Swing%) yet, but he had at least been making more contact on bad pitches, improving from 49.3% between 2013 and 2014 to a 62.8% clip in 2015. He also made more contact in the zone, the two bumping up his overall contact rate (Contact%) more than 7 percentage points. Accordingly, Villar’s strikeout rate (K%) fell almost 6 percentage points.
All of which is to say that Villar hasn’t come out of nowhere. He flashed his skills, and he demonstrated last year he could improve as a young hitter, albeit in a small sample. But he was without opportunity in Houston, ousted by Marwin Gonzalez when he suffered bad luck on BABIP in 2014 and blocked by Jed Lowrie, who ended up hitting a solid .222 before Correa’s arrival anyway.
But Villar has successfully sustained not only his contact gains from last year but also the early-season chase rate improvement from April that Eno pointed out. Villar’s swinging strike rate (SwStr%) is down to 8.9%. That his strikeout rate sits at 25.1% is a bit unfortunate; other players with similar swinging strike rates (within half a percentage point above and below) strike out roughly 20% of the time, on average.
So there’s merit to Villar’s improved batting average. Ask any sad, jealous Villar detractor for one of Villar’s faults, and they’ll cite his absurd .392 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It’s a bit high, sure. But he’s fast, and he hits ground balls. He does what Hamilton should have done all these years but never did.
Let’s tap on the xBABIP metrics. Andrew Perpetua’s xBABP uses Statcast data and isn’t overly optimistic, tabbing him for a .307 xBABIP. That’s what the detractors want to hear. My more primitive model, which may (or may not) better accommodate a player’s speed, pegs Villar for — wait for it — a .342 xBABIP. Which may (or may not) have been an exact match with his career BABIP prior to last night’s game.
Oh, and improvements on pitches outside the zone typically manifest in better walk rates, too. So the fact that Villar’s walk rate (BB%) has catapulted this year makes sense, given he’s not chasing junk anymore. He’s no longer a pitcher’s friend, converting his balls into strikes for him.
When it comes to the power, Villar is hitting the ball harder than ever before but also hitting fewer fly balls. It’s a pretty even trade, and it’s like that he’ll barely crack double-digits in home runs. A baker’s dozen is a bit optimistic, but 10 isn’t unreasonable.
Make all the necessary adjustments — to the home run rate, to the strikeout rate, to the BABIP — and Villar is a 10-homer, 60-steal, .275 hitter. Which is bonkers. He always had the potential to achieve the former. And, really, he always had potential to achieve the second as well, but it was always something of his own volition.
The latter, well, that’s just Villar improving as a young hitter. He’s no longer empty speed. Or, maybe he was never empty speed, because of the power. But he’s no longer a threat to himself — a threat to not let his natural tools play up because he couldn’t find his way on base. His plate discipline isn’t elite, but it’s good enough to make him an everyday player for any team, let alone a bad one.
This isn’t a mirage. Villar’s best days might still be ahead of him.