While the Milwaukee Brewers are 6th in MLB in runs scored, they likely have a couple more wins if their leadoff man were getting on base at even a mediocre pace.
There were many people who questioned if Jonathan Villar’s terrific 2016 was simply a one-year wonder type of deal. The Milwaukee Brewers were most happy with his .369 OBP and .826 OPS, on top of his 60 extra-base hits and MLB-best 62 stolen bases.
His start to 2017 has been far more unkind. Through 16 games, Villar has a .138 average, .200 OBP and a league-leading 26 strikeouts. Those strikeouts aren’t anything new – he had 174 last season – but Villar is on pace for around 250 punch outs right now.
One of the problems with Villar’s struggles is that he isn’t on base for the red-hot Eric Thames. Six of Thames’ 7 home runs have been solo shots with only 15 of his 58 plate appearances coming with someone on base.
Simple contact has been the biggest issue for Villar, especially on pitches in the strike zone. Villar currently has the 9th-worst contact percentage when swinging at strikes (75.6%). This consistent failure is most noticeable in situations like the 6th inning at Wrigley on Wednesday.
Milwaukee loaded the bases with just one out against Chicago Cubs‘ hurler Mike Montgomery. The infield was back and Villar is tough to double-up, so any contact is likely to score a run and give the Brewers a 5-1 lead.
Instead, after a 4-pitch walk of Jesus Aguilar, Villar whiffed on a first-pitch curve, went to 1-2 in the count, and then swung and missed to give Montgomery a chance to escape. That gave the Cubs an opening that they turned into a come-from-behind win.
With all this in mind, there are a few things Villar and the Brewers could try to do in order to shake things up a bit.
Move Villar Out of the Leadoff Spot
This would only be a temporary move to take pressure off Villar and put a currently high on-base guy in front of Thames and Ryan Braun. The two best spots would be either 6th or 9th. Both spots would allow him to simply hit without worrying about anything else.
As far as who bats leadoff, it could go to Domingo Santana who currently has a .340 OBP. He also owns a career .342 OBP when hitting first in the lineup.
Bat Only from One Side of the Plate
Villar has been a better overall hitter batting right-handed. However, he’s currently 0-for-17 with 7 strikeouts and 1 walk from that side of the dish. Last year, he owned a .930 OPS hitting righty.
This strange, early-season split doesn’t help clear up which side would be better if he focused on just one for a while. I’d still say he should only hit right-handed for a week or two, as he is a natural righty. Plus, lefty-lefty matchups would be tougher and he has history batting right-handed vs. a righty in his career (1-for-5, HR, BB, K, 3 RBI).
Bunt for Hits More Often
Two benefits can come from this. The first is obviously the opportunity to get on base. Especially if he is hitting left-handed, Villar has plenty of speed to consistently beat out throws. He had 7 bunt hits (21 total bunts) last year. Zero on both fronts in 2017.
Another positive is the belief by many that it allows you to see the ball better. Even one of the purest hitters in MLB history, Paul Molitor, would talk about the way a bunt or two can re-focus a hitter. Probably not a bad thing to listen to a first ballot Hall of Famer who hit leadoff for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Swing Less Often
Sometimes it’s helpful to just look at a few pitches, even if they’re strikes. Though Villar is only 6th among Brewers in how often he swings (47.6%), his number is 4.6% higher than last season.
Those extra swings are all coming at pitches outside of the strike zone. At pitches in the zone, Villar is swinging less often by 1%. When a ball is out of the zone, he’s swinging about 4% more often (and missing at a much higher rate). Planning to just watch some tosses go by can allow you to hone in on timing and movements much better.
Get His Front Foot Down Sooner
Major Leaguers are always hesitant to change their stance or swing. They believe what they do now is what has gotten them this far. The problem is, that’s not always true and things can change year-to-year. Cal Ripken was a rarity, as he changed his stance countless times in his career.
In watching some video, it looks like Villar is a bit slow getting his front foot down. This can cause his bat to be late through the zone, contributing to his swing-and-miss issues. Some hitters and coaches actually believe it’s best to just get that foot down immediately, and simply transfer your weight and hands as needed.
There’s no telling if any of these adjustments would help Villar, but what could it hurt. The Milwaukee Brewers need him on the bases to have a consistent offense throughout the season. Especially if the pitching has it’s share of problems, winning high-score affairs will be a necessity.