ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Jonathan Villar possesses rare tools that can change a game. Few players in the majors have his speed or his fearlessness on the bases, but sometimes his best asset can be his most glaring weakness as he’s been unable to harness his aggressiveness on the base paths.
Reaching base does little good if you’re getting thrown out, and while Villar brings the Orioles a stolen base element they haven’t had in years, the key for capitalizing on the deadline trade that brought him to Baltimore is to better utilize his speed to create more runs.
Villar, whose aggressiveness cost him playing time in his previous two stops with the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers, said he’s received a green light to do what he does best with the Orioles. At age 27, he’s already been traded three times, twice as a major leaguer, so Villar is an example that while the game is placing more emphasis on manufacturing runs, he hasn’t been able to find a place he can establish himself.
“I don’t care what the past is,” Villar said earlier this week. “Just right now, I’m in the future. You can play however you like, but you control which situation you choose to run in, how we can advance the play. I feel happy for that. The team’s not winning right now, and this year we’re learning about ourselves. But it will happen. … I feel better here because they told me, ‘You’re playing every day, do what you do.’ So, I feel comfortable and I can play right.”
In the Orioles’ 5-3 win at the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, Villar made a play on the bases that helped manufacture a run, and it was the perfect example of what he can bring while potentially making a manager pull his hair out in the process. With Villar at first base and Breyvic Valera at second with one out, both runners attempted to tag up to take an extra base on a fly ball to left.
Villar was about to be thrown out at second, but he came to a complete stop just before reaching the bag, avoided a tag and retreated to first, occupying the Mariners infielders in a rundown just long enough to allow Valera to score in the Orioles’ four-run seventh inning
“Came out smelling like a rose,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Some people call it aggressive, some people call it reckless. We need a little bit of that, quite frankly.”
That’s interesting coming from Showalter, whose Orioles teams haven’t run often. Despite Showalter being a believer in the value of advancing in 90-foot increments, he hates the idea of giving away outs. With the Orioles entering Saturday ranked 21st in the majors in steals, Showalter said he’s more interested in the team’s success rate than its steal total.
The Orioles front office appears to believe in Villar’s potential in shaping the club’s new identity for the future. He’s the most proven player of the 15 the team acquired at the trade deadline and is under team control through 2020 at what project to be club-friendly salaries. On many nights through a loss-filled August, Villar was one of the team’s most productive all-around players.
In Milwaukee, Villar earned the reputation of being a great teammate whose paramount goal was trying to help his team win games but struggled to do that because he was such a high-risk player on the bases. In 2016, Villar led the major leagues with 62 stolen bases, but was also thrown out a league-high 18 times — five more than any other player.
“He’s an unbelievably talented kid, ridiculously talented,” said Brewers left-hander Wade Miley, a former Oriole who was Villar’s teammate this season. “He’s got a cannon. He can hit from both sides of the plate. Obviously can run, but I was thinking [at the time of the deal], ‘What’s Buck going to be thinking when this guy is on the base paths?’ … He just goes.”
Brewers first baseman Jesús Aguilar said Villar’s aggressiveness frustrated his teammates in Milwaukee, but said he believes in Villar’s promise.
“Kind of, kind of, because you’ve got to understand the game,” Aguilar said. “You’ve got to respect the game. If you don’t respect the game, somebody’s going to pay. Those things aren’t supposed to happen, so somebody’s got to try to explain to him the good way, the right way. I know he can do it. I played with him for a year and a half and I know he’s a great player. Just sometimes, he’s over-aggressive.”
Villar said in that 2016 season, the Brewers embraced his aggressiveness, and he likened it to the message the Orioles have given him. He was also able to play mostly at shortstop, his natural position. But he said the following year, he was told to rein it in, and that took him out of his comfort zone. Villar shifted to second base in 2017, and his playing time diminished.
“In 2017, my mind is different because they told me, ‘You’re running too much right now.’ So I needed to change my plan,” Villar said. “It was like, if you don’t hit, tomorrow you might not play. In Milwaukee, we had a lot of infielders, so they needed to give the opportunity to everybody. They have a lot of good players. So in my head, I thought, ‘I have to hit every day because I want to play more.’ I think I put too much focus on that. And when you put too much of that in your mind, you don’t have the right concentration every day.”
One constant supporter Villar had was Brewers first base and infield coach Carlos Subero, who constantly worked with him on the mental part of base running. Subero, who worked with Villar for 2½ years, said he’s become a smarter base runner but still has a ways to go to reach his full potential in knowing when and when not to run.
“He’s very intelligent to steal a base,” Subero said. “He knows when, and he showed it here. Like this year, he really minimized the mental mistakes on the bases. He’s smart enough. What happens with him at times, he lets the competition take it to a personal level. He forgets that it’s 4-0 and you’re down and it’s the eighth inning.
“He’s very intelligent. It’s not that he didn’t know the score but he’s going to beat you and he’s going to get that extra base and get everything going or he’s going to try and stretch the single into a double and it isn’t the proper time, and he knows it. But he lets himself get to a personal level and gets the game off to the side. And it’s all that kind of mistakes he makes at times.”
Villar said he still texts regularly with Subero.
“That guy talked to me all day,” Villar said. “He called me before the game. He called me to the video room watching the pitcher. My preparation was different because I had one guy all the time. He still texts me all the time. ‘How you doing? How’s it’s working here?’ He’s helped me know what the pitcher’s doing, how he throws pickoffs, things like that.”
One thing that wasn’t lost on the Brewers — and the Orioles have noticed — is Villar’s competitiveness and love for the game. He still plays winter ball every offseason in the Dominican Republic, seeing it as the best way he can prepare for the upcoming season. Two springs ago, he played for the Dominican World Baseball Classic team despite knowing he wouldn’t play a major role on the star-studded club.
“Never in my life have I thought about playing in something like that,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m here.’ I didn’t care how much I played. You need me just for base running, I’ll be there. For real.”
In evaluating exactly where Villar fits in their rebuild, the Orioles have recently given him starts at shortstop, the position he enjoys the most. While his aggressiveness can sometimes carry over into the field with an ill-timed throw, he’s also shown he can cover ground across both middle-infield positions.
At the plate, the switch-hitting Villar has impressed Showalter with his at-bats. He already hit as many homers in his first 33 games with the Orioles (six), that he did in 87 games with the Brewers this season, which could be a product of seeing more fastballs in the American League. But with time, pitchers could start attacking Villar differently — he said he saw many more breaking balls in the National League.
He has been successful on 12 of 14 stolen-base attempts with the Orioles, though he was also picked off twice. Saturday’s game was the kind of mixed bag Villar often produces. He reached base four times, drove in three runs, stole two bases but ran out of the first inning by being thrown out attempting to steal third with two on and two outs..
But in terms of Villar’s style of play, the good comes with the bad. And it’s clear Villar sees his speed as a weapon to win, whether by executing a hit-and-run or forcing a pitcher to throw more fastballs to the hitter in front of him just by being a steal threat. But it’s also just the way he is and the way he chooses to play the game he loves.
“I love to play that way,” Villar said. “When we play like that, I feel like the game is more happy for the fans, for me, for everybody. When nobody is aggressive — my team’s not running, the other team’s not running, we’re only hitting — it’s not as exciting. So when you play different like that, a lot of situations are created, like hit-and-runs, everything. The game is different.”