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.
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.