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.
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.