Milwaukee Brewers: The State of Worry Surrounding Jonathan Villar

The Milwaukee Brewers are off to a better-than-expected start to 2017, sitting at 19-17 and just one game back of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, but their MVP from last season, Jonathan Villar, just hasn’t gotten himself going just yet.

At the conclusion of the 2016 season, the trade that sent Jonathan Villar, who won’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season, to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for minor league pitcher Cy Sneed looked like a huge fleecing of the Houston Astros. With Sneed struggling in his second season at Double-A, that likely won’t change, but Villar’s effectiveness with the Brew Crew certainly has.

Following Friday night’s win against the visiting New York Mets, Villar’s stat line consists of a .208 batting average, a .274 OBP, .607 OPS, four homers, 17 RBI and seven steals. Keep in mind that Villar led the big leagues in swiped bags last year with 62, or one for every 2.5 games played. This year that rate sits at one per five games played. All of Villar’s fantasy baseball value is being sapped, and those with him on their teams are likely getting squeamish at this point in the season. This has to be more than a slump, right? Well, yes and no.

First the bad.

Overall Villar is playing below replacement level ball, sitting with a -0.4 fWAR. His strikeout rate is up over 30% (30.1), his walk rate is down from 11.6% to 7.8%, and his wRC+ is 43 points below league average. Things aren’t going well.

The reasoning behind this seems to be that he is swinging and missing more often while his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is also down by nearly 100 points comparatively to last season. While BABIP has a lot to do with speed and luck, one of which Villar should still have given that he’s only 26, that number should go up as the season progresses.

His swing and miss rates however, are way up. Villar whiffed on 11.4% of the 1,052 four seam fastballs he saw last season. That number has shot up to 16.67 in 2017. Not a huge increase, but certainly enough to make a difference. His whiff rate is similarly up against change-ups and sliders, by 4.66% and 7.45% respectively. The biggest problem pitch for him so far however has been the cutter, which currently has him whiffing at 27.66% of those thrown to him.

Yes, we’re dealing with small samples given that it’s still relatively early in May, but those whiff rates are definitely something to keep an eye on.

As for the steals, the Brewers as a whole are stealing slightly less thus far this season, attempting 1.22 steals per game in 2017, compared to 1.46 per game in 2016. Part of the reason for this may be that their collective success rate was 76.3% a year ago, which is hovering right around the point (75%) where it actually ends up hurting the team more often than it helps. This season that success rate for the group is 72.7%, so it is entirely feasible that manager Craig Counsell won’t be giving the green light quite as often this season.

With all of that said, Jonathan Villar had a cold April last season and started turning things around and establishing himself in May of last season. Here are some comparisons that will make both Brewers fans and Villar fantasy owners a little more optimistic:

2016: .236 average, home run, 3 RBI, 5 steals, 2 caught stealing.

2017: .206 average, 3 home runs, 14 RBI, 5 steals, 1 caught stealing.

The average isn’t there just yet, and his OBP is way down, but that could have more to do with some luck and working on his launch angle, which is currently sitting at 7.30 degrees.

There are some kinks to work out, but with some tinkering to his approach and his swing, there could still be plenty of value left in Jonathan Villar this season.

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