Houston Astros No. 12 prospect Jonathan Villar is known for several reasons – the switch-hitter is aggressive at the plate, he has a cannon of an arm at shortstop, he steals a lot of bases and he makes too many fielding errors. I had the chance to see him play last week during a three-game series in Omaha and his aggressive nature was on display.
Villar, who was acquired from the Phillies in the 2010 Roy Oswalt deal, was 3-for-11 in the series with 2 RBIs, 2 K, 0 BB and 2 SB. The 22-year-old is hitting .275 with 5 HR and 31 RBIs in 60 games. And he has stolen 21 bases.
This is Villar’s first year in Triple-A Oklahoma City (affiliate of the Astros) and he’s still adapting.
During the first game of the series, Royals highly-touted pitching prospect Yordano Ventura got ahead of him 0-2 on two 98 mph fastballs that Villar swung at and missed. Two pitches later he threw Villar an 83 mph change-up that missed Villar's bat. But the next day, Villar showed a lot more patience, working the count to three balls in four of his five plate appearances and he singled in two of those.
According to Alex Freedman, the radio broadcaster for Oklahoma City, such patience is not the norm for Villar.
"He usually does not work very deep counts at the top of the order," Freedman told me during the series.
The Astros had him batting eighth in the lineup for OKC early in the season and then after they called up several guys, they moved him toward the top.
Villar is hitting just .200 against lefties (as a right-handed batter) this season and .312 against righties (as a left-handed batter). That disparity hasn’t always been the case for him at the lower levels of the minor leagues. Last season in Double-A, he hit .265 against lefties and .259 against righties. In 2011 (split between Single-A and Double-A), he hit .242 against lefties and .241 against righties.
He has more power from the left side and that has been the case throughout his minor league career – 30 of his 36 career home runs have come from the left side.
If you look at his career strikeout numbers, they have to be a real concern for the Astros. In 2010, he struck out 153 times in 132 games. In 2011, he struck out 156 times in 130 games. In 2012, he struck out 87 times in 86 games (he missed part of the ‘12 season after punching a door between innings of a game in July, breaking his right hand).
"I think the strikeouts are a little bit high for someone who would ideally profile as a top of the order kind of guy," Freedman said. "But he really is one of the most exciting players in the league. He’s got the speed – he’ll get a hit and the next thing you know, he’s at third base. And he’s very good defensively."
Freedman says he didn’t see Villar at the Double-A level, so he can’t really comment about how Villar is adjusting to Triple-A pitching, but he has noticed an improvement since the beginning of the season.
"He got off to a terrible start, a 2-for-34 start," Freedman said. "And this was not an unlucky 2-for-34, either. He chased a lot of pitches, hit into a lot of routine groundouts and fly outs. He didn’t have a lot of solid contact in general, but he adjusted after that and went on a real tear and he’s kind of evened out since then."
He doesn't draw a lot of walks (19 this season), but when he does get on base, he creates a problem for pitchers. He has stolen 183 bases during his minor league career, including 39 last season and 34 the season before.
"He’s aggressive, but consistently aggressive," Freedman said. "There have been times this year when he noticed the catcher was just tossing the ball back to the pitcher and he’ll dart off to the next base. There have also been times when he’s tried that and it has backfired.
"But I remember one game against Nashville when he was at third base. He was the only guy on base and he was such a distraction for the pitcher that he drew a balk and scored. He had a straight steal of home earlier this year, but was also caught trying a straight steal of home in a very critical situation in another game."
Defensively, you won’t see too many better arms at shortstop in the minor leagues, but the errors have really piled up for Villar. He has committed 157 errors in 503 minor league games – including 12 errors in 59 games this season.
"A lot of those were at the beginning of the year – and a lot of them were fielding," Freedman said. "I don’t remember too many errant throws. He’s been very good lately. It feels to me like maybe the game has slowed down a bit for him."
But defensive consistency is a problem.
"He’ll make plays that you don’t know if any other shortstop in this league can make and other times he’ll slow-play a ball and his throw will be late," Freedman said.
Freedman says Villar tends to move best defensively to his left, up the middle, especially on slow choppers. He says he also makes a lot of nice plays charging in on slowly hit balls to short. And he’s turned quite a few 6-3 double plays by himself.
Even though he plays an aggressive brand of baseball, the Astros are looking for more consistency from him. An article about Villar in the most recent edition of Baseball America Magazine says Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow wants to see three strong months from Villar before even considering a big league promotion.
"Towards the end of the year, if we feel like (Villar’s) a guy who needs to get some exposure to big league pitching, we’ll do that," Luhnow says in the article. "But really the focus is more on next year than this year. But we’ll handle that as we get later in the summer."