The Fall of Jonathan Villar

Entering the season, I saw this Brewers team as full of uncertainty. The starting rotation was full of crapshoots; the starting lineup full of talented but unproven players. On my first look at the roster, I thought the closest to a sure thing the Brewers had was second baseman Jonathan Villar. At just 25 years old last year, Villar was Milwaukee’s most electric player. He led the National League in stolen bases with 62, posted a sharp 118 OPS+, blasted 19 homers and played shortstop, third base and second base with proficiency. He looked like the kind of up-the-middle building block franchises dream of.
This year, not so much. Villar’s failure at the keystone was capped off by the Brewers’ acquisition of Neil Walker from the Mets this past weekend. At just .222/.280/.347, Villar has almost exactly matched the 10th percentile projection spit out by our PECOTA system; that is, Villar performed better in 90 percent of PECOTA’s simulations of 2017 than he has in real, actual 2017. Given how many stunningly good performances the Brewers have had this year, it’s easy to imagine what could have been with a Villar performing even close to last year’s level.
Villar has been up and down for much of his career, and maybe we should have seen this coming. Even Villar’s 50th percentile projection of a .249/.318/.394 line would have been a significant decline from 2016’s breakout campaign. His career with the Astros was defined by an up-and-down nature that is now plaguing him with the Brewers, including some mighty struggles in the minor leagues. He struggled badly in Class-AA in 2011, his first year in the Astros orgnization, after being promoted from Class-Advanced A Lancaster. And in 2014, his second time around at Class-AAA Oklahoma City, Villar mustered just a .258/.363/.347 batting line over 51 games.
What has gone so wrong in 2017? Villar feasted on sinkers in 2016. According to Brooks Baseball, he saw 525 sinkers and notched a .514 slugging percentage, powered by six doubles and four home runs. The sinker is a pitch designed not just to get groundouts but to keep the ball in the ballpark, and Villar showed a unique ability to lift sinkers with authority in 2016. Not so much in the current campaign. Villar has seen 305 sinkers this year and managed just one home run and a .353 slugging percentage. The sinkers are doing their job, and Villar is rolling over pitches he would put either over the fence or into the gap last year. It isn’t a full explanation for Villar’s struggles, but the sinker is such an important pitch to be able to punish in today’s game, where pitchers try to stay low to avoid the home run.
All year long, this Brewers team has dashed expectations, one way or another. I still think Villar has far too much talent to give up on in the long term, but given his struggles, it’s impossible to argue with the club’s decision to pick up Neil Walker on the cheap to try and shore up what has been easily its weakest position in recent weeks. Walker has already contributed, as he went 2-for-4 with a run scored in Sunday’s win over Cincinnati. But it’s too easy to wonder, with the Brewers sitting just two games out of the National League Central in mid-August — an absurd concept this winter! — where the Brewers could be with the old Villar back.
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