After rough 2017, Villar gets another shot as Brewers second baseman

A year ago, Jonathan Villar was considered the second baseman of the present and future for the Milwaukee Brewers.

However, he soon was deemed a player of the past after struggling and eventually being replaced. Now, Villar looks to reclaim those previous titles in 2018.

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Acquired from Houston in November 2015, Villar had a breakout season for the Brewers in 2016. Primarily playing shortstop then moving to third base and second base after the arrival of Orlando Arcia, Villar led the major leagues in stolen bases with 62, clubbed 38 doubles and 19 home runs while posting an impressive slash line of .285/.369/.457.

Established at second base in 2017 and as the team’s leadoff hitter, Villar struggled out of the gate and could never really get his bat going. He batted .206 with a .267 on-base percentage in April, .217 and .301 in May, .243 and .282 in June and .217 and .258 in July — hardly ideal for any player, but even more so for someone at the top of the lineup.

In a pennant race, Milwaukee went out and traded for Neil Walker on Aug. 12. Villar would own a slash line of .365/.390/.554 from Aug. 10 until the end of the season, but he got just 78 plate appearances as his role diminished to rare starts and pinch-hitting duty. Other than the meaningless final game on Oct. 1, Villar’s last start came on Sept. 5 — and that was as a center fielder.

“The game gives you so much feedback, and when you get negative feedback multiple days in a row and over months at a time, it gets tough,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “And he had a tough season.”

However, this past offseason Milwaukee didn’t add another second baseman — Walker was, and still is, a free agent — other than re-signing middle infielder Eric Sogard. The Brewers also have super-utility player Hernan Perez, who appeared in 17 games, with 16 starts, at second base in 2017.

Counsell doesn’t call it a platoon — “We use versatility to our advantage,” he said — but expect all three to spend some time at second in 2018.

“Eric’s there, Johnny’s there, Hernan Perez is everywhere. We have three players and one steps forward and produces a lot, or they share it in a way that makes the position productive,” Counsell said. “I feel like we’ll find a player’s production, and their production combined, will be really effective. The candidates there, to me, are proven. They’re not unproven players. They’re proven players in a lot of ways.”

Counsell made sure to note that Villar’s production wasn’t that long ago.

“How I looked at it is he’s capable of a 2016,” Counsell said, referring to Villar’s big season two years ago. “That’s why you give players like that chances, because he produced a season that was really impactful. And at the top of the lineup provided a baserunning threat, a power threat, an on-base threat. There’s not many of those guys. Where it ends up, I don’t know. But players who have produced that kind of season in the big leagues, that’s what you’re trying to get back to.”

Later, Counsell added, “Do we know how to get him back to 2016? Do we have perfect answers? No. We’ll have ideas that we’ll work on. There’s always several reasons, but I don’t think there’s anything I can (pinpoint).”

The numbers show a few clear areas where Villar slipped drastically from 2016 to ’17.

A switch-hitter, Villar did not fare well against left-handed pitchers in 2017. In 126 plate appearances, his slash line was .207/.262/.319.  A year earlier against southpaws, Villar batted .309/.385/.545 in 191 PA. (For what it’s worth, Sogard, a lefty, batted .262/.340/.405 in 47 PA in 2017).

In 2016, Villar hit offspeed pitches with authority, batting .270 with a .500 slugging percentage against changeups and .292 with a .479 slugging percentage on curveballs. However, last season, Villar dipped to .171 with a .229 slugging percentage on changeups and .194 with a .278 slugging percentage against curveballs. Probably little surprise then that Villar saw an increase in offspeed pitches in 2017 — after seeing curveballs 8.8 percent of the time in 2016 that number rose to 11.6 percent in ’17.

While Villar’s on-base percentage shows he obviously did not get on base nearly as much as he did in 2016, his walk rate of 6.9 percent was among the worst of his career. Villar’s career walk rate is 9.1 percent — he was at 11.6 percent in 2016, but also 10.0 percent with the Astros in 2013 and 7.8 percent in ’15.

Which is the real Jonathan Villar? Counsell has faith that the second baseman, who turns 27 in May, can get back to his 2016 form.

“It wasn’t four years ago, it was a year ago,” Counsell said. “It’s not the end of his career.”

Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow (a Larry Ritter Book Award nominee), Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns