Villar you not entertained?
There are a few “Golden Rules” when it comes to prospecting in dynasty leagues. Foremost is TINSTAAPP, or There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. Next is probably Bret Sayre’s saying: “when you’re betting on distant arms, go stuff first, stuff second, and everything else third when assessing future fantasy value.” Third might be to stay the hell away from catchers, first baseman, and back of the rotation starters. The final rule, at least in my mind, would be that prospect development is never linear.
The proverbial organizational ladder concept sounds nice: prospect gets drafted, adjusts to Rookie-Ball, is called up to A-Ball, adjusts to A-Ball, is called up to High-A, adjusts to High-A, gets called up to Double-A…and so on. In reality, things rarely turn out so smoothly. We experienced it with Lucas Giolito’s early season struggles, and Byron Buxton is currently demonstrating the unfortunate side of this concept. Talent often wins out, though, despite the many bumps in the road. It may not always be easy, but patience and the understanding that prospects won’t reach the big leagues without struggle can take dynasty owners far.
You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. I brought up the non-linear side of prospect development because there’s a certain player this season that embodies this idea, both while in the minor leagues and the big leagues. That player, as you may have guessed from the title of this piece, is Jonathan Villar.Following (and owning) Villar has been a rollercoaster of emotions since he became dynasty league relevant back in 2012 after stealing 39 bags and hitting 11 home runs in 86 Double-A games. Back then, Villar’s calling card was speed with, well, not much else. Villar did more of the same in 2013 before reaching the big leagues and hitting his way to a lovely 79 wRC+.
The more casual fantasy league owner may have first heard Villar’s name in 2014, when he became a late-round target in drafts as a cheap source of steals. Two home runs and three stolen bases over ten games (and a quick glance at his 2013 numbers in Triple-A) brought an instant overreaction from many, and he was suddenly the next great shortstop in baseball.
The young shortstop proceeded to hit .196 over the next 61 games and was optioned to Triple-A. Another young Astros shortstop by the name of Carlos Correa hit .325 that same season in High-A, and suddenly nobody cared about Villar. Although he did nearly double his isolated power mark while cutting his strikeout rate from his debut season, the two straight poor years gave Villar the look of a bust.
Villar actually did some hitting in the big leagues to kick off the 2015 season, cutting strikeout rate further, walking more, and hitting his way to an 88 wRC+ in the first couple months of the season. The perceptive dynasty owner would take note and grab him for what may be a future pay off, but Villar’s 2013 and 2014 struggles loomed and that Correa character was called up, causing Villar to be sent down to the minors.
Despite finally hitting, many fantasy players were thrown off Villar’s trail because of the demotion. In the minors, he kept hitting with a .271/.342/.407 slash line and 35 stolen bases in 70 games. Villar also flashed power with five home runs, but by then success in the minors only reinforced a quad-A hitter tag.
Next, Villar was shipped off to the Island of Misfit Toys—also known as the Milwaukee Brewers. There, he started to finally hit, and steal, and walk in the big leagues. You’re probably familiar with this Villar, who is hitting .292/.377/.423 with 25 stolen bases and six home runs over 60 games. That average is better than any mark he had in the minor leagues, and is his on base percentage which has been buoyed by an 11.9% walk rate that is more than 4% higher than his mark last season.
Probably the most common reaction to this season is that it is a fluke, because Villar already spent three disappointing seasons in the big leagues without much luck. Here’s another possible reaction, which I agree with: it just took Villar some time. Not every player is going to immediately get the hang of big league hitting, and, hey, maybe for some hitters it takes about 700 at bats and three seasons. He showed signs of life throughout his trip up the minor leagues and once he got to the highest level, things finally clicked with some plate discipline and opportunity.
Possibly the most important takeaway from watching Villar’s early career unfold, other than to be patient with talented players and to buy some Villar stock (yes, I believe this season is real), is knowing where to look for the signs of life I mentioned earlier. If they don’t show up in the obvious areas—batting average, home runs, steals, the works—the best place to look is almost always plate discipline.
Of course, strikeout and walk rate can say volumes about a player, and that happens to be the case with Villar. Although he is still striking out more than one would hope, the shortstop has cut his k’s from a 29.5% rate as a rookie to 22.7% in 2015. It bumped back up to 25.4% this season, but is still a vast improvement. His walk rate, which admittedly wasn’t bad as a rookie at 10%, dropped to 6.6% as a second year player and has steadily climbed until it took a big step forward this year with a 11.9% clip.
Diving deeper into the plate discipline numbers show incremental improvements that hadn’t shown up until everything came together this season. Villar has steadily made more contact overall—most notably on pitches outside the zone—while also swinging at less balls and improving his selectivity (always a good thing). In addition, the whiff rate has been on a downward trend from 13.8% in 2014 to 9.1% currently.
Other signals have come through, like an improved ability to spread his contact around the field and more line drives. His numbers were also depressed at one point because of a poor BABIP, and regression to the mean (and then some) did wonders for his success. Finally, having a full time opportunity without a Carlos Correa breathing down his neck (though Orlando Arcia is inching closer in Milwaukee) allowed him to get comfortable in the big leagues without the constant threat of being demoted. This was crucial, considering Villar hit .236 this April while adjusting to a new team in a new league.
For Villar, there wasn’t a single adjustment that happened to allow for a breakout. Instead, he developed, as a baseball player does. It wasn’t immediate, which threw most of us off his trail, but Villar finally figured it out, four years into his major league career. This isn’t the first time, nor the last, that a prospect will struggle before thriving in the big leagues, and that’s a valuable lesson to remember in fantasy baseball. Hopefully, you held onto Villar and can be…entertained by his breakout.