Production out of the second base position was an issue for the Milwaukee Brewers during the 2017 season, getting to the point that they acquired Neil Walker from the New York Mets for the stretch run in an effort to make the playoffs. Eric Sogard’s production had fallen off after a hot start and some injuries, and Jonathan Villar had performed much worse than his 2016 breakout season. Walker was a cheap addition and helped the team during his time, but Milwaukee showed no interest in signing him as a free agent during the last offseason. So the club headed into the 2018 season with Sogard, Villar, and Hernan Perez as their second base options.
During the spring, there was talk about Villar watching video of the Reds’ Joey Votto in the offseason to help him revamp his approach at the plate. After a spring training that didn’t see any of the second base candidates firmly establish themselves as a front-runner at the keystone (except perhaps prospect Keston Hiura), Milwaukee has started Villar in ten of their thirteen games.
It is very obvious that Villar has altered his approach at the plate this season, and his current .310 batting average has some hoping that he can be a positive influence on the offense. A closer examination of his production casts some doubt on that prospect, and seems to indicate that second base will again be an impediment to run-scoring success in the Brewers’ lineup.
Given that we are still so early in the year, I’ll make the obligatory small sample size warning here.
First, lets take a quick look at Villar’s overall production. Last season he slashed .241/.293/.372 for an OPS of .665. So far this year he is at .310/.310/.333 for an OPS of .643. Ouch...despite the shiny batting average, his early numbers are actually down from last season. On top of that, he hasn’t drawn a single walk and has just one extra base hit in his 42 at-bats. Mostly batting towards the bottom of the order, he has scored just once and has three RBI. He has two steals, with no caught stealing. Milwaukee’s infield defense has been the worst in baseball thus far and Villar shoulders some of the blame with two early errors.In the field he has two errors as a participant in the worst fielding infield in all of baseball. His batting average on balls in play has climbed from a career .345 level to .419 this season. It seems obvious that that number will not be sustainable with his current approach.
The change in Villar’s approach becomes even more obvious when we look a little deeper. Aside from his BB% falling from a career 8.9% to zilch, his groundball percent has jumped from 57.2% career to 73.3%. His fly ball and line drive rates have plummeted, with the the latter down to 13.3% (from 19.9% career) and the former down to 13.3% (from 22.9%). He is striking out at close to his same career rate, which is a lot (27.4% career, 26.2% this year).
Villar’s hard contact is up a bit to 35.5% but he’s making soft contact at the exact same rate so far, and is generally just beating the ball into the ground. He has notched a few more infield hits in the early going but in general, Villar looks like he has become a slap hitter, displaying little power. But he isn’t being more selective, either; his swing percent at pitches out of the zone has climbed from a career mark of 26.6% to 30.8%.
It would appear that the Brewers are willing to let Villar try and refine his new approach as the season moves forward. Of course, if Sogard (.167/.231/.292, OPS .552) or Perez (.095/.136/.238, OPS .374) were showing a pulse, they might be less patient. It probably isn’t possible that Villar can go a whole season without a walk, but isn’t very likely that he can maintain a .419 BABIP either.
The lack of production at second base has been obscured by some poor starting pitching, a lack of deep starts by said rotation, some very poor defense, and injuries (and more injuries). Yes, it is very early in the season - 13 games out of 162, or 8%, isn’t enough to make any permanent judgments. But combined with last season’s numbers and this season’s start, it appears that second base remains a major issue for a team that is hoping to contend.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs