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Jonathan Villar is having a breakout season

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A few props are in order for a guy who’s been a keystone in the infield, a sparkplug on offense (despite his frequent baserunning blunders), and a clubhouse leader.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Orioles are not playing competitive baseball. By a long stretch, they’ve been, statistically, the worst-pitching team in baseball this whole year. It’s hard to watch, and it has understandably turned off a lot of fans.

Take a look at the forest, and it doesn’t look so good. But zoom in, and some of the individual trees are really quite stunning.

One individual performance that merits singling out is that of Jonathan Villar.

Back in July 2018, when the Orioles traded Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers for Villar and a couple of prospects, it was considered an upgrade for a playoff-bound Milwaukee. Back at the time, that deal was all about Schoop: the underperforming Villar was hitting .261 and had hit five home runs all season. He’d plug a hole on a noncompetitive team for the season and that’d be it. (It couldn’t have helped, either, that as Mark reminded us last month, Villar’s early career with Houston had been defined by the infamous “butt slide”.)

As an Oriole, Villar found a little pop in the last 54 games of the 2018 season—hitting eight home runs en route to a .258 average. But he was still definitely a placeholder.

This year, things have changed for him. He’s putting up career power numbers. His ISO is a career-best .186. Since the All-Star Break, Villar is hitting .311 with seven doubles, two triples, and 10 homers. He’s got a .924 OPS in that stretch, dramatically improved from his career average of .737.

Most impressively, at 28, Villar is flaunting a combination of power and speed that is pretty rare in the league. With 20 home runs and 29 steals this season, he’s just the sixth Oriole to break into the 20-20 club, putting him in the company of Manny Machado, Brady Anderson, and Paul Blair. He’s not going to break into the 30-30 club this season, but if he’d hit like this all season, he would have.

Baseball Reference has a handy little metric called PwrSpd, developed by Bill James. It shows the “harmonic mean” of a player’s home runs and stolen bases: “To do well you need a lot of both,” says the little descriptive blurb. Well, if you took every MLB player and ranked them based on PwrSpd, here is your League top 10:

Ronald Acuna Jr. 33.3
Christian Yelich 31.1
Starling Marte 24.0
Jonathan Villar 23.7
Trevor Story 22.6
Jose Ramirez 21.8
Francisco Lindor 21.6
Yasiel Puig 19.2
Victor Robles 18.9
Fernando Tatis Jr. 18.5

I don’t mind seeing Villar’s name in that company at all, do you? (Incidentally, the Orioles are above-average as a team in PwrSpd, probably a lot of it thanks to Villar.)

Yesterday, Roch Kubatko published an interview he did with Orioles hitting coach Don Long, who noted that Villar—yes, the same impulsive, mistake-prone player who’s run into some of the worst base-running errors you’ll see all season—is “really under control” at the plate right now. Since a mid-season slump, the switch-hitting Villar has apparently put in extra work in the cages to calm down his body and be more selective with his pitches.

Then there are his contributions beyond the numbers. Our own Drew wrote a month ago that Villar’s “greatest contribution this year has perhaps been intangible.” Hyde describes him as a “ballplayer,” that handy-dandy catchall that means you’ve earned the coach’s respect.

Actions speak even louder than words: Brandon Hyde trusts this guy. While guys like Richie Martin, Rio Ruiz and Jace Peterson fight for playing time, Villar has had exactly one day off this season. He is a strictly average defender, but he brings an important grounding component to the lineup and the diamond.

And if Villar is aware that he’s playing on a terrible team, he certainly doesn’t show it. At 28, he’s a clubhouse leader. He was one of the guys who got between Chris Davis and Brandon Hyde during that blowup a couple of weeks ago. Along with guys like Pedro Severino, Hanser Alberto, and Renato Núñez, Villar has brought a passion and a sense of fun to the clubhouse that has made this season dramatically better than it could have been.

(Just look at this Twitter blast from August 24th, where Villar retweeted everything from Sevvie’s first career grand slam to Núñez’s first stolen base.)

There hasn’t been much buzz, even among the team faithful, around Villar’s breakout season. This is because he’s not a prospect likely to be around for Baltimore’s 2022 playoff run (you heard it here). It’s easy to imagine Villar being traded this offseason: it was by the hair of a chinny-chin-chin that the Orioles didn’t make a move with him in July: sagely, Mike Elias chose not to sell low. But you could see him getting good returns for him now.

Which makes sense. An average-fielding second baseman with pop and speed? Villar would be a contributing infielder on a good team. He’s become a rock in this infield and a leader in the clubhouse. Even on a bad team—maybe especially on a bad team?— that’s something worth admiring.