Fantasy Baseball: Is Christian Villanueva's Breakout Legit?
Coming into the 2018 season, there were a number of rookies who figured to make a big impact.
The Atlanta Braves' stud outfielder Ronald Acuna, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the game, was a superstar-in-the-making (and still is, by the way). The Philadelphia Phillies' Scott Kingery was playing everyday and got off to a fast start. The New York Yankees' Gleyber Torres was seen as a dynamic young star and, of course, there was the instant splash made by the Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani.
Acuna, for reasons passing understanding, is still in the minors. Kingery has a batting average barely over .200 and an on-base percentage under .300, and Torres has only two games under his belt thus far. Ohtani has, of course, been terrific, both as a hitter (170 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR) and as a pitcher (3.60 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 2.77 xFIP in three starts, 0.4 fWAR), but none of them have been the best rookie in real-world or fantasy baseball so far in 2018.
What He's Done
In 72 plate appearances (19 games), Villanueva is batting .355/.444/.744 with 7 bombs, 16 RBIs and 13 runs scored this year, with a wOBA of .513 and a wRC+ of 236. He leads all rookies in slugging, wOBA, wRC+, and is far outpacing all first-year players in fWAR (1.4) in this small sample size of a 2018 season. The next closest rookies in terms of WAR are Joey Wendle and Tyler Austin (0.6 fWAR), and they aren't that close.
Three of of his seven dingers came in one game, by the way.
At 26 years old, Villanueva is a bit aged for a rookie, but this may be a case where, like with Jose Bautista or Jayson Werth, he's simply a late bloomer. And there were signs of this kind of talent in the minors. In Triple-A last season, he hit .296/.369/.528 with 20 homers and 86 RBIs in 454 plate appearances. He missed all of 2016 with a broken leg suffered in spring training while in the Chicago Cubs organization, and he wasn't overly impressive in Triple-A the season before, when he batted .259/.313/.437 with 18 blasts and 88 RBIs in 505 plate appearances.
But sometimes a player needs to reach the bigs before he truly shines, and that appears to be what's happening for Villanueva.
He shows decent, if not spectacular, plate discipline. His 8.3% walk-rate is right in line with his minor-league norms, It is a tad less than the league average (9.2%), but it's a great mark for a rookie. His strikeout-rate of 29.2% is a bit higher than the league norm (22.9%) but not outrageously so. He likes to swing the bat, with a swing percentage of 52.5% that is higher than the league average of 45.3%, and he does tend to chase, swinging at 40.4% of pitches outside the strike zone (the league average is 29.2%). Those are worrying signs, but they aren't uncommon for even the best of rookies.
Is this level of production sustainable? Probably not. He has a BABIP of .441, which will come down. With that said, he also has a hard-hit rate of 39.0% that is better than the league average (33.6%), but it ranks only 106th out of 177 players. The good news is that his soft-hit rate of 12.2% is among the lowest in baseball, 25th-lowest to be exact.
So while some regression is to be expected, fantasy owners who have Villanueva on their team should be riding the hot streak. His .355 batting average is fourth-best in baseball among players with at least 70 plate appearances, and his .774 slugging percentage and 1.219 OPS are tops in the sport.
In dynasty leagues, owners should either have Villanueva in a bear hug or work to extract a pretty nice ransom for him. There is definitely a chance this has simply been a fluky-good month for Villanueva, like we've seen from rookies in the past (Trevor Story). But when you watch Villanueva hit, he definitely does remind one of another young MLB star.
Every time I see a #Padres 3B -- Christian Villanueva (@Villa_at_3B) HR, I see a little Miguel Cabrera (@MiguelCabrera) in there. Obviously I'm not comparing their production to one another. But their mechanics are similar. #MLB pic.twitter.com/EG2vDXEdiR
— Mickey Koke (@mickeykoke) April 19, 2018
Obviously, there is only one Miguel Cabrera, but Villanueva is doing his best Miggy impression so far in 2018. At the first sign of a slump, fantasy owners would be wise to explore the market to see if a deal is to be made for a more established player, but Villanueva is certainly not someone to sell-high on just yet. Steamer projects him for 15 jacks, 50 RBIs and 52 runs in 402 at-bats the rest of the way, which may be too conservative, especially in the run and RBI department since he has been hitting third lately in the Padres' lineup.
Sometimes, it pays to simply hold onto -- and start every day -- the surprisingly productive rookie and enjoy the ride, even if there are bound to be some ups and downs.