The Blue Jays bench has been a weak point for them this season. They lacked a true power threat, they lacked a good base runner and with Bo Bichette hurt they didn’t have a great backup shortstop. Joe Panik is exposed defensively at SS, and Santiago Espinal is still young and developing. They addressed the power bat by acquiring Daniel Vogelbach, (though that might be over soon) and they hoped to address the baserunning and SS with Jonathan Villar.
Villar comes over to the Blue Jays from the Miami Marlins. He’s a switch hitter who’s hit .267/.323/.353 for an 87 wRC+, numbers that are not far off from career averages. He has a little bit of pop, hitting at least 10 home runs each of the last four seasons, including 24 with the juiced ball for the Orioles last season. He’s hit better from the right side this season; though for his career he hasn’t shown any major platoon split. For this year though the Blue Jays could platoon him at short with Panik.
He’s not an exceptional shortstop, but he makes the plays and doesn’t hurt you. In 117.1 innings at short this season his defensive runs saved is -1, per Fangraphs. His UZR is 1.0. Last season he was a -4 in 658.0 innings with a -1.4 UZR. Baseball Savant had him as -3 outs above average last season. It’s the same deal with Villar at second, he’s a slightly below-average fielder.
One of Villar’s biggest strengths is his versatility. He can play second and short regularly. He played 346.2 innings at third back in 2016 for the Brewers, he played 10 innings in CF this year for the Marlins and played 21.2 innings in left with the Astros in 2015. Villar has experience at lots of positions and the Blue Jays have shown they are unafraid to move players around regardless of their experience with a position. We’ve seen Cavan Biggio all over the outfield, Brandon Drury in the infield and outfield and Panik at short, a position he hadn’t played in the big leagues.
Villar’s biggest strength has to be his speed. He broke out in 2016 when he stole 62 bases for the Brewers. Since then he’s stolen 23, 35, 40, and this season he leads the league with nine. Last season by Fangraphs’ baserunning runs above average, Villar was the best base runner in the league worth 10.5 runs above average. He added a full win of value from base running alone, a big factor why he was worth 4.0 WAR.
The problem with this is that BsR is a counting stat and much of Villar’s value comes from playing every day. He played all 162 last season. That obviously has value but there is a reason Baltimore placed him on waivers at the start of this season and why the Marlins took a chance on him. Villar isn’t the most efficient base runner.
Typically the rule of thumb for break-even success rate when stealing a base is 75%. With home runs in today’s game as prevalent as they are that number is probably even higher. It’s not worth the risk of stealing if anyone in the line-up can hit a home run. Sure Villar leads the league in steals, however he also is tied for the league lead in caught steals with five. A 64% success rate is not getting it done.
There is more to base running to than just stolen bases. Smart base running, taking the extra base, those little plays have value. The Blue Jays have struggled in that aspect as a team this season. Per Baseball Reference, the Blue Jays have taken the extra base just 37% of the time. That is advancing more than one base on a single and more than two bases on a double. The Blue Jays are tied for 25th in that regard. Villar last season was one of the best players in baseball at taking the extra base. He took the extra base 61% of the time, which placed him among the game’s best runners. This season however he is down to 39%.
Villar hasn’t been as strong of a base runner this season, because his sprint speed is down. From Baseball Savant, you can see after holding steady for most of his career, Villar has slowed down a foot per second.
|Year||Sprint Speed (ft/sec)|
The Major League average is 27 ft/sec. In the Statcast era Villar has hovered around slightly above the league average. This season he has dropped below the average. For context 26.6 ft/sec places him between Santiago Espinal (26.9 ft/sec) and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (26.4 ft/sec).
A little tangent here but Danny Jansen is really fast. His 27.3 ft/sec makes him one of just four catchers to have above-average speed. He ranks fifth on the Blue Jays and is just 0.2 ft/sec slower than Bo Bichette.
There are a few reasons why Villar’s speed could be down this season. He could be battling a small injury, he could have got a bit out of shape during the shutdown or perhaps he is just ageing. We don’t want to speculate too much here.
The Blue Jays didn’t acquire Jonathan Villar to be a pinch-running extraordinaire. They got him because he can play a reasonable shortstop and hit a little better than Joe Panik. He’s got versatility and can fill in all over the diamond. He can steal a base, but needs to be a bit better at picking his spots to account for his declining speed