Jonathan Villar’s daring on the basepaths, an aggressive approach that allows him to collect stolen bases and criticisms for running into ill-timed outs, isn’t the same mindset that he’s bringing into the batter’s box.
Not since the All-Star break. Not since the calendar turned to August.
There’s an element of restraint that’s working for him.
Villar began last night slashing .308/.381/.547 in 43 games in the second half, compared to .259/.326/.421 over 89 games in the first. He drew 16 walks in August, four more than his next-highest monthly total in one fewer game, and slashed .323/.418/.645.
The free passes were put on hold last night, but Villar singled twice off three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. His 32 hits this month lead the team and he’s now 55-for-177 (.310) since the break.
“He’s really under control,” said hitting coach Don Long, who stepped away from the indoor batting cage for a few minutes to talk about Villar.
“His work’s been really good, he’s really applied himself in here and really trying to learn, ‘How can I become more consistent, how can I get better?’ And really he’s under control in his mind and his body.
“Like any hitter, when they really try to do a lot of big things it’s easy for them to get out of control and out of position to hit. And he’s really done a good job of being consistently under control and in position to hit. I see it not only in how he’s hitting the ball, I see it in what he’s swinging at and what he’s able to lay off.
“He’s certainly drawn more walks, he’s chased less off-speed down below the zone, he’s chased less fastballs above the zone, he’s gotten in better counts to hit. He may start some at-bats 0-2 for a variety of reasons, but in the end he’s able to get back 3-2 and in a lot of those at-bats draw walks. So he’s really been effective in a lot of different ways.”
To the point where he’s entered the conversation for Most Valuable Oriole, an award that figured to go unanimously to Trey Mancini.
Villar registered a .315 on-base percentage with the Brewers last season before the non-waiver deadline trade. The .345 OBP he posted prior to last night would be the second-highest of his career.
A byproduct of his new approach?
“No question,” Long said.
“If you’re putting early swings and balls in play on marginal pitches that aren’t really meant to be hit hard, you’re not going to make even a lot of hard outs. By flipping the count in your favor more often than not and then when you do swing it’s a together, under control swing, now you’re putting the ball in play with more authority on a better pitch to hit and you’re going to get better results.
“And the fact that he’s been walking a lot and been able to walk a lot from both sides of the plate. I think the left side was ahead of his right side coming into the year, but I’ve seen him make great strides from the right side, as well.”
The 53 walks this season also are the second-most of his career, trailing only the 79 he drew in 156 games in 2016.
Villar joined the 20/20 club over the weekend, with the home runs representing a career high. Is the uptick in power also related to his approach?
Again, Long responded with, “No question.”
“When he gets in trouble he has a tendency to get fast with his body and get out over his front side, which puts him in a position to be really steep to the ball and hit the ball on the ground more,” Long said. “And when his body’s under control he holds a stronger position to hit, so now when he swings it’s naturally going to hit the ball more on a line or in the air the right way with something behind it.”
Villar swiped his 29th base last night after a two-out single in the third inning and has been caught stealing eight times this season, tied for the second-highest total in the majors. The three pickoffs were tied for first last night.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him take small sips. Put Villar on base and he wants to touch them all. No matter the game situation.
He isn’t going to tone it down.
That’s not how he’s wired.
“Kind of out of my realm, but for any player, it’s a constant learning process of when is the right time to take a chance and when is not the right time,” Long said.
“I think we want to develop a culture here where we want to play smart for sure, but at the same time we want to push the envelope and we want to be aggressive and we want to make other teams adapt to what we’re doing. And playing it safe is never, in my opinion, the right way to play.
“You want to play smart, but being safe just for the sake of being safe is not the best way to access your best.”