New two strike approach for Villar could change fortunes with the Brewers

Jonathan Villar
Jonathan Villar hopes his new two-strike approach leads to more consistency at the plate. Photo Courtesy of Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America

For the second straight season, Jonathan Villar enters camp with an opportunity to grab control of the Brewers’ second base job.

Now that Neil Walker is off to the Yankees, Villar will officially get his shot at redemption in 2018 after hitting just .241 a year ago.

Earlier this week, manager Craig Counsell said he would not name a starting second baseman, rather leaving it open until Villar, Eric Sogard or Hernan Perez steps forward to claim it. Counsell also added neither Sogard nor Perez have had the type of season Villar had in 2016, which gives him a leg up.

One of the reasons the Brewers have continued to give Villar chances is his game-changing speed, which was on display when he finished with a league-leading 62 steals. The downside was he also finished with 174 strikeouts — seventh highest in the league.

After similar troubles in 2017, Villar said this offseason he studied Joey Votto and his two-strike approach, hoping to cut down on his strikeout totals. Votto struck out on just 14 percent of his at-bats last season, as opposed to Villar, who was 18 points higher.

Tuesday afternoon in a second inning at-bat against Cole Hamels, Villar showed off his new two-strike approach, fouling off a pitch before lining out to second baseman Darwin Barney. It was an out, but it was a sign of huge progress.

So far this spring, Villar has struck out on just 20 percent of his plate appearances, and he is subsequently hitting .310 with a .355 on base percentage.

The Brewers have already seen this approach begin to work in spring training, as Villar has struck out on just 20 percent of his plate appearances so far.

For years, Votto has adopted a two-strike approach of choking down on the bat, hoping to put the ball in play. Anthony Rizzo does the same and now Villar hopes he’s next to find success with this.

As reasons for hope, the Brewers and Villar keep pointing to 2016, where Villar had an on-base percentage of .369, as opposed to just .293 in 2017. As a result of this, Villar scored nearly half as many runs, while giving up playing time to Perez, Sogard and eventually Walker.

Too often in 2017, Villar was swinging at balls outside the zone, and missing on pitches in the zone. With the speed he has, however, if Villar can simply make contact he will beat out grounders and even some of those will likely find holes.

Without any help on the way at least early on, Villar is going to get the chance to reclaim a job he lost midway through last season. If it pays off, there’s a chance the Brewers will be happy they saved the approximately $4 million it would have taken to bring Walker back.

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Brewers Slam Links: Wednesday March, 14

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Jesus Aguilar hit 16 home runs in 2017, but is now just fighting to make the roster. Getty Images

Last season, the Brewers waived Scooter Gennett just days before the end of spring training because he could only play second base. Gennett went on to hit 27 home runs and drive in 97 runs with the Reds, a decision that appeared to backfire on the Brewers, who struggled to find a second baseman all year. Those types of tough decisions and more await manager Craig Counsell in a few short weeks. Here are some updates on where things stand with spring training hitting the final weeks.

Brewers starting pitching battle taking shape

Craig Counsell
Manager Craig Counsell narrowed the race down to four earlier this week, but will have a tough decision settling on the final two. Getty Images

A pitching battle that started with five was narrowed to four when manager Craig Counsell announced Yovani Gallardo would be moved to the bullpen for the rest of spring. His next decision — Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, Wade Miley and Brandon Woodruff — is a very tough one to make. Here is a look at the pros and cons to each player and why they’re in the race:

Wade Miley

Pros: As I wrote about earlier this week, Miley has taken a minor league deal signed just a day before the start of spring and run with it. After Miley’s most recent outing, his ERA dropped to just 1.38 with 15 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched in spring training. As a left-hander, Miley would be the first consistent southpaw in the Brewers rotation since 2013. With the recent performance of Miley, it is very likely the Brewers feel they are in a much better spot in their rotation than many believe, and therefore didn’t believe they needed to pay for another starter.  The Brewers have had success rebuilding projects like Guerra, Zach Davies and Chase Anderson —the question is if Derek Johnson can do the same with Miley.

Cons: There is a reason that Miley was available on a minor league option after struggling the last couple of seasons with his control. Miley is coming off a 5.61 ERA in 2017 and hasn’t had a sub-4.00 ERA since 2013. Given the Brewers are looking to build a rotation strong enough to compete with the Cubs, the real question is which Miley the Brewers are getting and is it enough to keep up with the Cubs and Cardinals.

Brent Suter

Pros: It’s very likely Suter is going to be on the Brewers roster, whether it is in the bullpen or rotation. For those who are fans of pace of play and speeding up games, Suter is a dream pitcher, pitching as fast as possible, sometimes too fast for hitters and managers. Suter’s unconventional style was uncomfortably fast for hitters, even quick-pitching at times, but it kept hitters off balance and helped to negate his lack of velocity. Suter doesn’t have overwhelming stuff with a fastball in the mid-80’s, but simply found a way to compete and deliver solid start after solid start. He could be a valuable member of the rotation this season.

Cons: As good as Suter was a year ago, he consistently ran into trouble trying to get through a lineup for the third time. This past offseason, Suter said he worked with Ryan Braun to build his strength in hopes of going deeper into games. The other concern about Suter is whether teams have figured him out or if he can handle facing a team multiple times per year. If the Brewers determine he isn’t, he could be a great long man or a versatile piece to go multiple innings in middle relief.

Junior Guerra:

Pros: Guerra came into this spring training with all sorts of question marks after a rough 2017 campaign. Just a year ago, Guerra was the Opening Day starter, but hurt his calf on a bunt attempt and was lost until late May. Guerra, a 31-year old rookie at the time, was fantastic for the Brewers in 2016, finishing with 121.2 innings pitched and a 2.81 ERA. This is the Guerra the Brewers hope they get in 2018. So far, Guerra is off to a good start in spring training with a 2.45 ERA in four starts. It was recently discovered Guerra has a minor league option in his contract that could work against him if it comes down to the wire.

Cons: Guerra’s 2016 can be described as nothing short of forgettable. Guerra finished the year with a 5.12 ERA that featured 43 walks in 70.1 innings. A season that started with a calf injury never got on track for Guerra and leaves him entering 2018 as a major question mark.

Brandon Woodruff

Pros: Woodruff got the start in on Tuesday and made the most of it, giving up one run in four innings. He was a late arrival on the scene in 2017 and was a stabilizing force in the rotation with a 4.81 ERA. Woodruff was sent down in late August, but Counsell assured him he would be back up to pitch key innings down the stretch. With the Brewers dragging to the finishing line, Woodruff was indeed a valuable piece in the rotation in the final month. One of Woodruff’s strengths was his ability to consistently throw strikes and avoid walking many batters.

Cons: Before Tuesday, it had been a tough spring for Woodruff, who had battled his control, specifically with his off-speed pitches. As is the case with Guerra, Woodruff also has a minor league option remaining and seems like a good candidate to start in the minors. There is no doubt at some point he will make starts for the Brewers this season. It just may not be right away on the Opening Day roster.

 

 

Brewers continue solid spring with win over Rangers

Brandon Woodruff
In his first start of spring training, the signs were positive for Brandon Woodruff. Getty Images

Pregame

It’s been an active 24 hours of news for the Brewers, who announced yesterday Yovani Gallardo would work out of the bullpen. This will allow the team to get a better look at the four starters still competing for a spot, while allowing Gallardo to compete for one of the two spots in the bullpen. Counsell said there is still an opportunity for Gallardo to make the team, but with spring training over halfway complete, Counsell simply needs to start narrowing the list.

While Stephen Vogt had hoped to return to action this week, according to Todd Rosiak of the Journal Sentinel, Vogt suffered a setback and will be reevaluated by doctors. Vogt said before the game Tuesday it was more a case of the shoulder just not progressing the way he and the team hoped.

With all that in mind, the Brewers handed the ball to Brandon Woodruff for his first start of spring training.

In-Game

Just a day after facing Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, The Brewers get to face Cole Hamels. The game started with a regular-season feel to it with Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw filling the first four spots in the lineup for much of the game. Eric Thames got the start at DH, allowing him and Shaw the opportunity to get a few more at-bats against left-handed pitching. There was good news on the pitching side as Corey Knebel returned to action after tweaking his knee on a slippery mound this past weekend, and Aaron Wilkerson recovered from a rough first inning to pitch well.

Post-game

Another game, another win for Craig Counsell’s squad in Cactus League play that featured positives both offensively and on the mound. Jett Bandy, who is battling for the backup catcher spot, had a couple nice blocks in the dirt, threw out a runner at second and narrowly missed a home run on two occasions.

Woodruff, who had struggled at times this spring training, got his first start and pitched effectively, limiting the Rangers to just two hits and one run in four innings of work. At times, the young right-hander had also battled his command early in spring, but only had one walk despite struggling with his off-speed pitches.

 

Wade Miley marching towards rotation spot with great spring

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Wade Miley has made a full-court press to secure one of the two remaining starting pitching jobs. Associated Press

Just one day before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to arrive at spring training, Wade Miley signed a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. With the way he has pitched since, he might be the first to lock up one of the two remaining spots in the Brewers rotation.

Wiley is currently competing with Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, Yovani Gallardo and Brandon Woodruff for the final two spots, but out of that group Suter, Guerra and Miley appear to be the front-runners.

Out of that group, Miley is the one fans may know the least about to this point. Here is some background on Miley and what he would mean to the Brewers.

Arizona

Miley spent his first four seasons with the Diamondbacks and was solid, approaching 200 innings in three of his four seasons. The only year he didn’t was in his first season, when he started only eight games.

Miley had solid years in 2012 and 2013 with a 3.65 and 3.91 ERA, respectively, before dropping to a 4.60 ERA in 2014.

In his first full season on the mound, Miley was named an All-Star and also won Rookie of the Year in the National League.

Miley’s time with the team did not end well after the Diamondbacks sent him to the Red Sox for Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. There were apparently concerns about the left-hander’s preparation habits that prompted the move.

Post-Arizona

Since being traded from Arizona following the 2014 season, it’s been a rocky road for the left-hander, who will be the first to admit he has struggled with his command and confidence.

Miley spent one year with the Red Sox, finishing with a 4.46 ERA before he was dealt to the Seattle Mariners, for Roenis Elias and Carson Smith.

Miley was then traded again to the Orioles after less than a year with the Mariners where he 5.37 ERA, including a dreadful 6.17 ERA in 2016 and 5.61 ERA in 2017.’

Miley Chart 2

Making the Most of an Opportunity

After a couple of turbulent trips, Miley pointed to a couple of mechanical adjustments that had him confident he had turned it around.

Miley was solid again on Sunday, allowing just two runs on three hits in five innings of work. Miley was a little disappointed in his command, citing the three walks he had, but continued to improve his ERA which now stands at 1.38.

Aside from being a workhorse, Miley would provide the team with a lefty starter that has been empty from the rotation the last couple of seasons. When fellow lefty Brent Suter stepped in last season, he became the first left-handed starter to start for the Brewers since Aug. 28, 2013.

By inserting Miley into the rotation, the Brewers can prevent teams from stacking their lineups with lefty hitters, which may be one of Miley’s biggest assets.

The race for the final two spots was narrowed to four Monday when Counsell announced Yovani Gallardo would work exclusively out of the bullpen.

Miley is just hoping he is going to be one of the last men standing when the group is narrowed to two.

Outfield acquisitions affect Ryan Braun more than most

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Ryan Braun is left to compete for a position for the first time in a while. Photo Credit: Journal Sentinel Files

When the Brewers stunned the baseball world by acquiring Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, eyes immediately shifted to what would happen to Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips. One name not mentioned was Ryan Braun, who as it turns out has been the one affected more than most.

As spring training opened, manager Craig Counsell said Christian Yelich would see time in right field during the spring, but would primarily play left and center field during the regular season. That left field spot has been occupied by Braun for the last two seasons.

Counsell added Braun would only play left field and first base. Reading the tea leaves, that doesn’t give that many at-bats for Braun and that might not be the worst thing.

Given the Brewers just traded a number of their top prospects for Yelich, who’s coming off an impressive season in which he hit .282 with 18 home runs and 81 RBIs — Yelich is going to play, and play a lot.

Unless Braun dramatically eats into the at-bats of Eric Thames, there is at least the appearance that the Brewers are preparing to go with an outfield of Yelich, Cain and Santana, with Braun getting his plate appearances as well.

Recently at the NFL scouting combine, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said, “the most important statistic for me in evaluating players as far as you move forward to the next season is availability.” Although it is in a different sport, it is absolutely true in baseball as well.

Braun only played 104 games last season, his lowest since 2013 when he when was suspended on July, 22 for the remainder of the season. after a violation of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

This past season Braun played through a calf injury most of the year, but also had to leave a variety of other games with wrist soreness, back tightness and other ailments.

While Braun has remained a quality hitter, his production has dropped. Braun hit just 17 home runs last season, his lowest since 2014. He also hit just .265, a steep drop from .305 the year before.

As Braun has shown signs of slowing down, Santana’s career is just getting started after a breakout season in 2017. While Santana struggled defensively, he hit .278 with 15 home runs and 85 RBIs.

Though it was made clear Braun is not moving over to right field, an outfield with Yelich, Cain and Santana has the look of a bright future.

The Brewers are certainly in a good spot to now provide Thames with some protection after he struggled following a monster April.

For the first time in a while, the Brewers have the opportunity to manage Braun’s at-bats and keep him healthy. This sets the Brewers up well for the future and may help feature a stronger Braun.