Fantasy Baseball: Is Jonathan Villar's 2016 Breakout Performance Sustainable?
Every year, there are players who come along where you take a look back at their season-long stat lines and say, "Where the heck did that come from?"
Milwaukee Brewers infielder Jonathan Villar is one of those players. In 2016, his first season as a full-time starter, he hit .285/.369/.457 with 92 runs scored and an MLB-leading 62 stolen bases. Yes, he was thrown out more than anyone else (18 times), but when you swipe 62 bags, you can live with that. He had a wRC+ of 118 while putting up an fWAR of 3.0 and an rWAR of 3.9.
Among qualified shortstops, that fWAR of 3.0 was tied for eighth-best in baseball. He became one of the game's best leadoff hitters, and did so in relative obscurity playing in Milwaukee.
This winter, Villar has been playing in the Dominican Winter League, where he has been doing a lot of Jonathan Villar-type things, like this straight steal of home last week.
Jonathan Villar se roba el home plate para darle la 1ra carrera a las @aguilascibaenas. CortesÃa de @AFPSiembra pic.twitter.com/PbTMcmQyXj
â€” LIDOM (@LIDOMRD) December 28, 2016
But the number that really opened a lot of eyes in 2016 were his 19 home runs. Earlier in the winter, Villar showed off his newfound power with this multi-homer game.
Jonathan Villar lleva 2 jonrones en el partido que las @aguilascibaenas derrotan 5-1 a los @GigantesSFM. CortesÃa de @AFPSiembra pic.twitter.com/j8HK11JXle
â€” LIDOM (@LIDOMRD) December 23, 2016
The Brewers acquired Travis Shaw from the Boston Red Sox to play third base last month, meaning Villar will become the team's full-time second baseman in 2017. The second base and shortstop position has seen an influx of young talent in recent years, and both positions set home run records last year.
Villar is one of the players who helped set that record, and it's what makes him a potential second- or third-round pick in season-long fantasy baseball leagues.
His power potential goes hand-in-hand with his plate discipline. It's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing, but his ability to hit the ball out of ballpark forces pitchers to attack him carefully, which resulted in an 11.6% walk-rate in '16, the highest of his brief Major League career. It was the best rate among all qualified shortstops, and his .369 OBP was also the best in the bigs at that position.
Speed is a skill you simply can't teach. He was tied for third in baseball in infield hits (22) and second in bunt hits (7). That speed is what has always allowed him to have a higher-than-normal batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and his .373 mark from last year was fourth-highest in the bigs.
While Villar did strike out more than you would like from a leadoff hitter (25.6%), it wasn't because he was a free swinger. In 2016, Villar actually swung at a fewer percentage of pitches out of the zone (24.1%) than he had in 2015 (27.4%) or 2014 (30.0%) as a part-time player for the Houston Astros. His swinging strike percentage of 10.6% was only slightly higher than the year before (10.4%) and was below his career rate of 11.4%.
Becoming a more patient hitter resulted in some additional two-strike counts and strikeouts, but also a lot more free passes, many of which felt like doubles thanks to all those stolen bases.
What really opened everyone's eyes, though, was the increase in power, which transformed him from a speed-only guy into a dynamic offensive weapon. Check out his power numbers since debuting in 2013.
That's quite an uptick in power, and he didn't do it by selling out and pulling the ball, either. His 32.3% pull percentage was actually lower than it had been either of the previous two years (44.9% and 34.0%). He instead took the ball up the middle more, with a career-best 41.7% of his batted balls going that way.
As mentioned above, Villar is moving to second base in 2017, but at the start of the season, he'll have eligibility at either shortstop, second or third base, making him even more valuable. The numbers indicate his 2016 season may not have been a fluke, although expecting an uptick from his 19 homers is probably a stretch. Steamer projects Villar to hit .255/.333/.397 next year with 14 home runs, 69 runs scored and 43 steals in 562 plate appearances, which is probably on the conservative side.
There is more talent at the middle infield positions than at any time in recent memory. Even with that, Villar should go in either the second or third round in 12-team season-long fantasy leagues. He is baseball's premier stolen base guy with definite power potential.
It's a bit of a boom-or-bust situation, but if he booms, he can be one of the most dynamic players in baseball and a fantasy league MVP.