In Jonathan Villar, the Miami Marlins see a prototypical leadoff hitter. They see a player who can steal a lot of bases and hit his share of home runs.
“He’s a guy who does a little bit of everything,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.
They also see a middle infielder who very likely will be their starting center fielder.
The Villar-to-center experiment began at the onset of spring training, which came to a halt on Thursday amid the growing coronavirus pandemic. His sample size in the outfield, both in the big leagues and this spring, is small. The seven-year MLB veteran has played just eight games and 43 career innings in center field, most recently in 2017 with the Milwaukee Brewers. He had minimal action in nine spring games where he played center.
But even with the limited sample size, the Marlins were encouraged by his progress before spring training was suspended.
“He looks pretty natural out there,” Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said last week. “I don’t know what it looks like from you guys in the press box, but his breaks and his jumps look natural. He has a natural glide to the ball out there. We didn’t have any reservations about his ability to play out there because we had seen video of him out there doing it and our scouts had seen him. But until you see it yourself, you want to make sure. It seems like every day, he’s more and more comfortable out there. No reservations at this point.”
With baseball on hold for the near future, let’s dive deeper into Villar and what value he brings to the Marlins.
Why the Marlins want Villar at center
Inserting Villar into the lineup in center field, if he can handle the position, affords the Marlins the opportunity to stabilize their defensive alignment and maximize their potential offensively.
Doing so allows Brian Anderson to primarily play at third base, which is where Miami ideally wants him long-term. Miguel Rojas would be at shortstop and Isan Diaz would be at second base. Jesus Aguilar (first base) and either Jorge Alfaro or Francisco Cervelli (catcher) round out the infield.
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In the outfield, Corey Dickerson has been penciled in as the everyday starting left fielder since he signed a two-year deal this offseason. With Villar in center, that leaves only a semi-platoon situation in right field. Veteran lefty Matt Joyce is expected to get some steady playing time. Lewis Brinson, Harold Ramirez, Garrett Cooper, Matt Kemp and Magneuris Sierra are competing for basically three roster spots.
“It’s great to have versatility, but when you’re moving all over the field it’s not quite as easy as it sounds,” Mattingly said. “You’re a lot more comfortable if you’re in a spot all the time.”
Villar’s defensive metrics
Villar has primarily been a second baseman and shortstop during his MLB career, which has included stints with the Astros, Brewers and Orioles before being acquired by the Marlins this offseason. He also has played third base and sparingly in the outfield.
His overall defensive metrics? They haven’t been great regardless of the position based on FanGraphs’ defensive analysis.
▪ Second base: Plus-1 defensive run saved over 2,436 career innings.
▪ Shortstop: Minus-13 defensive runs saved over 3,075 innings.
▪ Third base: Minus-7 defensive runs saved over 429 innings.
▪ The outfield: Minus-3 defensive runs saved over 64 2/3 innings.
Regardless of where Villar plays, the Marlins want his bat in the lineup since he provides a valuable mix of hitting for average and the ability to hit for power, a perfect combination to be a table setter for a lineup.
He’s a career .261 hitter and has 78 career home runs.
Villar showed a major uptick in his launch angle last season (7 degrees in 2019 compared to his career average of 3.9 degrees), which points to more line drives and flyballs — and a factor in his career-high 24 home runs last season.
A lot of stolen bases
The most eye-popping statistic of Villar’s career to this point are his 202 stolen bases. This includes swiping 40 bags last year — the third most in MLB — and leading MLB with 62 steals in 2016.
He is one of three players to have stolen at least 150 total bases over the last four seasons, along with Billy Hamilton and Trea Turner.
One stark difference between Villar and the other two: Villar’s sprint speed is nowhere near the level of Hamilton and Turner.
Statcast defines sprint speed as how fast a player runs in the fastest second of a given competitive run. The league average is 27 feet per second. A sprint speed above 30 feet per second is considered “elite.”
Turner’s 30.4 feet per second average last season ranked second in MLB among players with 100 competitive runs. Hamilton’s 29.5 feet per second ranked eighth.
Villar? He clocked in with an average sprint speed of 27.9 feet per second, still in the 72nd percentile among all MLB players but not in the same echelon as many other top basestealers.
So for Villar to be as successful as he has been on the basepaths, he needs to be more dialed in with his timing, better with his jumps, more keen with his instincts.