Jonathan Villar bet on himself and lost

Jonathan Villar put together a terrific August. His 146 wRC+ led the team and ranked as the 45th-highest mark of all MLB players whom have had at least 50 plate appearances. Villar played so well in August that manager Craig Counsell has been inserting him into the lineup on a playoff-hopeful team almost on a daily basis.

Yes, Villar has been raking lately. But this article isn’t about how good he is. Instead, the next few hundred words will focus on his miserable and not-so-surprisingly awful 2017 season — his hot August notwithstanding. If you think 55 plate appearances is a decent enough sample size to think he’s a changed player, this piece probably isn’t for you.

In late February, the Milwaukee Brewers offered Villar an extension worth around $20 million in guaranteed money. The second baseman was coming off a 3.1 WAR season in which he hit 19 home runs on his way to a 111 wRC+. He proved he could be constant threat on the bases, as he used his .369 on-base percentage to steal 62 bags in 80 attempts. Naturally, the Brewers wanted to keep him around. They even waived Scooter Gennett in order to make sure Villar had a permanent spot in their lineup. However, somewhat surprisingly, Villar passed on the extension, settling for a $500,000 salary instead of the millions he could’ve made. He instead chose to bet on himself and his future, most likely thinking he could garner more money with a subsequent strong season.

Villar bet on himself, and Villar lost.

As of Sept. 5 Villar has been worth -0.4 Wins Above Replacement, well below replacement level. In other words, only 10 players with a minimum of 400 plate appearances have performed at a lower level than the Brewers’ infielder. In case you’re still not getting it, Villar is the 11th-worst player in Major League Baseball this season.

Let’s compare his last two seasons.

2016 2017
AVG .285 .241
OBP .369 .293
HR 19 11
BABIP .373 .328
wOBA .356 .287
wRC+ 119 70
WAR 3.1 -0.4

Villar’s statistics across the board have plummeted. He went from a hitter who created 19 percent more runs than league average, to one that doesn’t warrant a spot on the major league roster. A lot of that has to do with his discipline at that plate. His walk rate has dropped by five percent and his strikeout percentage — which was already high — has ballooned to 30.1 percent, which is the 10th-highest rate in MLB.

Overall, Villar’s made considerably less contact, and has suffered more bad luck on the balls he has managed to put in play. With a career groundball rate of 56.7 percent, Villar always been a ground-ball batter. And he used that to his advantage in 2016, hitting a remarkable .313 on grounders. Even the average fan could tell you that mark was probably unsustainable going forward. And they’d be right. This year he’s hitting just .272 on ground balls, down 41 points, which is why his BABIP is has fallen almost 50 points as well.

There was just no way Villar could’ve duplicated his 2016 season. He’s a strikeout machine without enough power to make up for it, and without his ability to get on base via the walk, his value dwindles. And that’s exactly what happened. But even my projections didn’t expect him to fall of a cliff and drown in the ocean. My projection system (RW23) pegged the Brewers’ second baseman for regression, but still had him as a high-OBP guy with decent enough power for a middle infielder. I don’t think anyone foresaw his complete meltdown at the plate.

Now, I don’t blame Villar for having confidence in himself and rejecting the extension the Brewers offered. I mean, more power to him. The payoff had the opportunity to be enormous. But as the 2017 comes to an end, it’s hard to believe he doesn’t regret taking the money. But don’t get me wrong; he still has time to prove he is, in fact, the player he was in 2016. At 26 years old, the Brewers would be wise to keep giving him chances, as young players are incredibly important assets. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2021, and although he’ll enter arbitration this winter for the first time in his career, he won’t cost the team very much.

Expect Villar to play a utility role for the Brewers in 2018, but to think he’ll be as valuable as he was in 2016 or as useless as he’s been this season, is a little outlandish. His true talent level is somewhere in the middle, and hopefully he consistently displays that in the years to come.

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Who are the Brewers getting in Anthony Swarzak?

The Milwaukee Brewers are buyers in 2017. If I would’ve told you that on the eve of Opening Day, my readership would be flirting with zero. That’s how incredible this whole thing is. As of publication, the Brewers have a 0.5 game lead in the NL Central over the Chicago Cubs, and they just made a trade. And unlike in recent seasons, they shipped out a prospect (Ryan Cordell) and brought in a veteran (Anthony Swarzak). Yes, the Milwaukee Brewers are buyers in 2017, and even if it’s a soft buy, they’re still attempting to compete.

But who exactly are the Brewers getting in Swarzak?

This has been a breakout year for Swarzak, and you may have guessed that considering you’ve probably never heard of the guy. At 31 years old, he’s been worth 1.7 WAR and posted a 2.23 ERA and a 2.34 FIP across 48.1 innings of relief this year for the Chicago White Sox. For his career, however, his numbers are intensely different and not nearly has admirable. The truth is that he’s been a bad pitcher for the majority of his career. Yet the Brewers believe the pitcher he’s been in 2017 is the real deal, and they shipped away Cordell — one of the players in the Jonathan Lucroy trade a year ago — to put that belief to the test.

The Brewers are probably right about Swarzak, as he’s made significant changes. He’s a two-pitch pitcher who throws a fourseamer and a slider, and he’s managed to up his velocity this year. More importantly, though, he’s discovered a dominant slider. Swarzak has always utilized a slider, but now he’s getting more whiffs than ever with it.

The above chart shows the whiff percentages on each of Swarzak’s pitches since the beginning of his career. As you can see, his slider has gotten better.  His slider whiff rate is sitting just under 20 percent (18.48 percent to be exact) in 2017 — the highest of Swarzak’s career. Side note: He pitched just 13 innings in 2015, so I’m throwing away that sample size.  Not only has his slider improved, but his fastball has been more fierce as well. It sits in the mid-90s and has jumped up almost a full mile per hour from 2016, and batters are really struggling to hit it, managing just a .168 batting average. Quietly but surely, Swarzak has turned into a reliever that can be trusted down the stretch, not just in games but in the late innings as well.

Swarzak will help the Brewers immediately, and this is the type of soft buy the Brewers should be making. Their bullpen is anything but trustworthy, and his presence will allow relievers like Carlos Torres and Oliver Drake to pitch fewer high-leverage innings, which is a very good thing. Swarzak will most likely slide into the seventh/eighth inning role alongside Jacob Barnes, who has had an up-and-down season thus far.

Losing Ryan Cordell isn’t easy — I like him more than most — but there’s essentially no risk here on Milwaukee’s side. The Brewers wanted help for 2017, and Swarzak fits that. He’s cheap and reliable; two things David Stearns values.

Travis Shaw was snubbed

Travis Shaw didn’t make the National League All-Star team. Instead, Nolan Arenado and Jake Lamb will represent the NL as its chosen third basemen, and that’s fine. Arenado is second in WAR among the hot corner, and Lamb has been worth over two wins, as well. The fact that Shaw deserves an All-Star nod more than Lamb isn’t why the former was snubbed. Well, it is, but it’s not the argument I’m going to focus on.

On the Final Vote ballot, there are five players you can choose to nab the final spot. Three are third basemen. Guess how many of those are Travis Shaw? Zero. Shaw was shunned so much so that he wasn’t even included on the final ballot that included three of his counterparts. And that, my friends, is absolutely and utterly ridiculous.

Shaw is having a career year and is clearly enjoying his new home in Miller Park. He’s already set a career high in home runs (18) and has been worth 2.5 Wins Above Replacement through 74 games. To make that hit home a little harder, Shaw entered the season with 3 WAR to his name over 210 games. His on-base percentage has ballooned by over 50 points since 2016, all the while proving to people he is capable of stealing bases — he’s 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts. He’s essentially been more valuable in 2017 than he was in his previous two years combined. But those stats alone don’t prove he’s an All-Star. We need some perspective.

Here is that perspective. Below is a table that lists Arenado and Lamb, plus the three other final vote participant third basemen — Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant and Justin Turner.

WAR wRC+ wOBA OBP ISO HR
Travis Shaw 2.5 136 .387 .363 0.269 18
Nolen Arenado 2.8 112 .372 .352 0.245 15
Jake Lamb 2.1 129 .380 .378 0.258 18
Anthony Rendon 3.7 145 .397 .398 0.253 16
Justin Turner 3.9 182 .446 .472 0.185 8
Kris Bryant 2.4 135 .380 .391 0.245 16

How Rendon and Turner didn’t make the All-Star Game outright is beyond me. Shame on the fans of the Nationals and Dodgers. They are crushing it and deserve major respect.

So, based on the table above, I understand why those two were among the final vote options. Meanwhile, Lamb should be nowhere near the festivities, but that’s a whole other ordeal. But how come Kris Bryant got more love then Shaw when their stats are nearly identical? Is it because Bryant won the MVP last season? Is it because Bryant won the World Series last season? Is it because Bryant is more of a household name? Yes, those are the reasons. Kudos, MLB! I love popularity contests.

And before Cubs fans start piling on me for being biased, let’s look at Shaw’s ranks among third basemen.

NL 3B Rank
WAR 4th
wRC+ 3rd
wOBA 3rd
OBP 8th
ISO 1st
HR T-1

And yet, he’s not considered among the top five third basemen in the National League. Ridiculous.

The Milwaukee Brewers only garnered one All-Star spot, with Corey Knebel earning his much-deserved first ever appearance. But Shaw deserves at least a final-vote chance. The case can also be made for Eric Thames, Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson, but Shaw is the biggest snub of them all.

Projecting Stephen Vogt

With the Brewers making another move to its 25-man roster, it’s time for another projection post. But don’t worry. I have a Matt Garza article scheduled for later this week, so make sure to stop by again. I mean, who doesn’t want to read about Matt Garza?

Jett Bandy — the owner of a 72 wRC+ — was optioned to Triple-A to make room for Stephen Vogt, who the Brewers claimed off waivers from the Oakland Athletics in another low-risk and cheap move by David Stearns. The former two-time All-Star Vogt will share time with incumbent Manny Pina behind the plate, but Pina figures to see most of the playing time. Vogt has earned a 94 wRC+ over his last 1.217 plate appearances but has been substantially underwhelming in 2017. He’s batting just .217 with an OBP under .300, but with a walk rate of 9.2 percent, his batted ball average of just .244 is the main culprit. His hard-hit rate is actually up compared to the last two seasons, so expect some positive regression in the second half.

Now, Vogt is 32, so by no means do the Brewers view him as a long-term option. They still believe in Bandy, and they sent him down in order to get consistent at-bats and to see if he can rediscover his confidence. Vogt and Pina make a fairly decent catching tandem, though, and RW23 projects the former as a serviceable catcher.

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA K% BB% BABIP HR
RW23 180 163 .257 .321 .401 .722 .145 .316 16.5% 8.3% .286 5

RW23 still believes Bandy is the better option, although it’s extremely close. Bandy has more power, but Vogt is the better OBP player. He makes consistent contact and will walk a smidge more often. Hopefully, Bandy hits AAA pitching, and his demotion is short-lived. But for now, we’ll see what Vogt can do on a first-place team.

Projecting Lewis Brinson

The future is here.

Just a few days after promoting Brett Phillips and Josh Hader, the Milwaukee Brewers made the call to No. 1 prospect Lewis Brinson, effectively commencing the team’s bright, bright outlook and future. Phillips was hitting the ball well in Triple-A, while Hader was having his fair share of problems. Lewis, on the other hand, was devastating opposing pitchers. In 204 plate appearances, the newly minted 23 year old posted a 134 wRC+, a .397 on-base clip and a .390 weighted-on base mark. He also mashed six dingers en route to his promotion. He earned his call.

Brinson marks the new wave of players coming to Milwaukee. He and Phillips seem destined to man the outfield grass in Miller Park for years to come, but as Brinson is set to make his debut, one must wonder how much playing time he’ll get. Domingo Santana (128 wRC+) isn’t going to lose any at-bats, and Ryan Braun — when he returns from a lengthy disabled list stint — figures to play almost everyday as well. Keon Broxton (79 wRC+) seems to be the odd-man out if the Brewers want to get Brinson and/or Phillips consistent time on the field. But of the two, Brinson is the one who will most likely stay when Braun makes his way back. Phillips could use some more time to improve his plate discipline and cut down the strike outs.

With that being said, here’s what RW23 foresees for Brinson in 2017.

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA K% BB% BABIP HR
RW23 179 200 .256 .325 .429 .754 .173 .327 25.0% 8.6% .314 7

Compared to Phillips’ projection, RW23 likes Brinson quite a bit more. Depending on Milwaukee’s plan for him, Brinson’s 200 plate appearances might be on the high side, but to me, calling him up to sit him on the pine is a waste of everyone’s time — especially Brinson’s. He needs to be in the lineup as much as possible.

Projecting Brett Phillips

Highly regarded prospect Brett Phillips was called up Monday to take over the roster spot of Travis Shaw. But since Shaw is only on paternity leave, Phillips’ stay in the big leagues will most likely be a short one. This is nonetheless exciting, though. Phillips was the main piece in the Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers trade, and I wrote about that acquisition here. (Keep in mind that I did predict Domingo Santana would be the star of the trade, however).

After a quiet season in Double-A in 2016, Phillips has smashed the ball in Triple-A so far in 2017. In 198 plate appearances, the 23 year old has 11 home runs, running a 144 wRC+ in the process. His promotion was obviously well deserved, even if it’s just for a few games. But while Phillips has been a monster at the plate in the minors, he’s still striking out at an outrageous clip (30.3 percent), which should be a huge, flashing warning sign as he enters the majors. That alone is scary, and that alone is why the RW23 projection has little faith him in this season.

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA K% BB% BABIP HR
RW23 75 68 .231 .310 .390 .700 .159 .307 33.1% 9.5% .330 2

Phillips is a top prospect for a reason. His defense will flirt with elite — particularly his arm — and he has home-run power and extra-base pop. But his holes in swing are worrisome, and it may take him awhile to get it figured out. Don’t jump off his bandwagon if he struggles to begin his career.

If Keon Broxton doesn’t pan out and/or Ryan Braun is traded, Phillips — along with Lewis Brinson — could man the outfield for the 2017 Brewers. He’ll always be a strikeout-prone player, but his defense and power should be able to overlook that.

Get excited. The future is here.

Orlando Arcia still isn’t hitting, but…

Orlando Arcia still isn’t hitting. He’s had 399 plate appearances, and he’s still not hitting. He owns a career 66 wRC+ and has only managed a base hit on 27 percent of his batted balls. Both marks are well below league average. Now, we before we go any further, we have to understand we really didn’t expect him to make a big impact with the bat. Coming up through the minors, Arcia was known for his glove with his offense a distant second. However, his 66 wRC+ was unexpected, at least by me. I was expecting more of a league-average bat, with an OBP in the low .300’s. But man, Arcia just cannot get going.

BUT I HAVE GOOD NEWS.

Arcia is improving. Just take a look at this.

Month WRC+
April 2017 77
May 2017 62

Oh wait. This isn’t the right chart. According to this, he’s actually been worse than dreadful in May. Ha! This is a trick. Yes, Arcia has floundered in May, but there’s still reason to believe the 22 year old is improving.

Month K% BB% OBP
April 22.6% 3.6% .274
May 12.2% 7.1% .309

Arcia has dropped his strikeout rate by over 10 percent, improved his walk rate and has gotten on base at a higher clip as a result. His eye at the plate is better, evidenced by his decreased out-of-the-zone swings.

Around games 20 to 30, he had a really bad stretch of chasing pitches, but since then, he’s been better than most. Hopefully, this trend continues, and hopefully, with better pitches put in play, his BABIP will rise.

Arcia has been worth 0.6 WAR without hitting a lick due to his defense. If he can somehow manage to be just a league-average hitter (100 wRC+), he could be the prospect everyone once loved. But in keep mind, he’s only 22. Patience is a virtue, my friends.