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Looking Ahead: Who Exactly is Jonathan Villar?

The 2018 fantasy baseball season has come and gone. While there are still some postseason races to be decided on Sunday (and, if we’re lucky, Monday), it’s time to move onto 2019 for fantasy purposes. I’ve already turned toward a few young players making strong cases for 2019, but I’ll now be diving entirely in profiles for next year. I won’t be leaving 2018 entirely behind, though; this offseason, I’ll look into players who had surprising years (positive and negative) to evaluate what owners should make of these outlier seasons and how to think about the player moving forward. Thanks to Dylan Anderson (I’m always willing to take requests for profiles on Twitter or via email), I’ll kick things off with Orioles infielder Jonathan Villar.

Jonathan Villar

Jonathan Villar didn’t entirely bounce back from a dreadful 2017 season, but he at least made it back to respectability. His .262/.327/.385 line approached league average, but Villar’s real fantasy value is as a baserunner. Tied for fourth in baseball with 34 steals, he’s made himself particularly noteworthy in roto leagues, where the scarcity of speed leaguewide has made stolen base specialists more valuable than ever.

Interestingly, Villar’s season line is almost a dead match for his career’s. If you haven’t paid much attention to the Brewers or Orioles- and in the case of the latter, no one would blame you-you might wonder why Villar’s even a player worth profiling. This year, he slashed .262/.327/.385 with an 8% walk rate and a 27% strikeout rate. In over 2,000 MLB plate appearances, Villar has a .257/.325/.394 line, with a 9% walk rate and a 27% strikeout rate. Toss in league and park adjustments, and Villar’s 94 wRC+ this year is identical to his career mark. Altogether, he’s produced almost exactly as he was projected preseason.

So what makes Villar such an enigma? Shouldn’t we just pencil him in for 35-40 steals and a .260/.320/.390 slash next season? I’ll let Villar’s 25-game weighted on-base averages explain, courtesy of Fangraphs.

Jonathan Villar wOBA

Every hitter has his peaks and valleys, but Villar’s have been rather extreme. In his first two months as an Oriole- he was traded from Milwaukee to Baltimore at the last possible minute on July 31- he’s hit .263/.341/.394 and stolen 20 bases. The average and slugging mirror Villar’s production in Milwaukee, but his on-base percentage was up .020 points, giving him more leeway to turn his speed into stolen bases. Any reason to believe that could be real? Unfortunately, it seems more like a fluky hot streak. The best place to start is with Villar’s rolling strikeout and walk rates.

Jonathan Villar walk and strikeout rates

Admittedly, not since he became a regular in 2016 has Jonathan Villar struck out this infrequently. Unplayable early on, the punchouts came down as the year progressed. At the same time, his walk rate ticked back up a bit, although nowhere near his 2016 levels. Walks aren’t valuable in and of themselves in most fantasy leagues, but a palatable on-base percentage is crucial to determining if Villar can ever again approximate his 2016 form when a career-best .369 OBP allowed him to lap the league in stolen bases. But digging deeper, it becomes difficult to pinpoint any sort of process change.

Villar swung a little bit more as the season progressed, but that alone feels an insufficient explanation. Villar was equally aggressive in his terrible June as he was in his strong May and August. Indeed, despite Villar’s improved strikeout and walk rates, he’s not been in more favorable counts this season. In fact, he’s been behind in the count more this year than in either of his previous two seasons.

Owners desperate for something positive could point to the fact that Villar has been more aggressive on the first pitch this season, perhaps recognizing that working deep counts doesn’t mesh with his slash-and-dash skill set. That’s true, but Villar’s results on the first pitch haven’t impressed. Per Statcast, Villar’s hit .308 and slugged .500 on first pitches. On the surface, those numbers seem promising, but they’re unremarkable. Overall, the league is hitting .339 and slugging .576 when putting the first pitch in play, a reflection of hitters only offering at first pitches they think they can drive.

So what do we make of Jonathan Villar? On the one hand, there’s no question he has 2019 value. Stolen bases are scarce and we know Villar provides them. The Orioles are dreadful, so he’ll play barring injury. There’s a good chance that his speed and playing time could have him pushing 40 steals, and that alone makes him a roto owner’s dream.

On the other, the “strides” that he’s made at the plate this year seem unsupported by any underlying numbers. His offensive profile relies almost entirely on sustaining a high batting average on balls in play. When the hits are falling, he’s valuable; when they’re not, he’s a drain. There’s no doubt Villar’s a high-BABIP player, based on his approach and speed, but he’s not going to hit .280 unless he strikes out significantly less.

I’m hard-pressed to believe that his strikeout reduction at the end of the year is sustainable since he wasn’t any more consistent about actually making contact. In the long run, it seems his biggest approach adjustment was in swinging more often early in counts, but such an adjustment seems easy for opposing pitchers to counter; be careful about where you attack him early on in counts, and the onus falls on Villar to be more selective again.

In this case, the projections do seem to be reliable. Jonathan Villar is much the same player he’s always been, a guy who needs batted ball luck to prop up the offensive profile. Buyer beware- if you’re in on Villar because of his late-season charge, it’s best to stay measured. A 2018 repeat is reasonable, but the fantasy superstar from 2016 is probably never coming back.

Keep up with all the latest Fantasy Baseball happenings with Van Lee, Jeff Zimmerman, and Rob Silver on the Launch Angle Podcast.

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