Shortstop Jonathan Villar is the consummate example of the baseball adage: “You can’t steal first.”
Blessed with raw athletic talent, exceptional speed and a bazooka arm capable of throwing out hitters from the outfield grass, Villar has played roughly one full Major League season but is back with the Oklahoma City RedHawks because of a subpar on-base percentage and occasional mental breakdowns.
Handed the Houston Astros starting job out of training camp, Villar hit .200 with a .255 on-base percentage in 225 at bats.
“The adjustment level at the big league level is different than Triple-A,” said RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco. “You don’t consistently see the quality of pitching that you see up there. Once they find a hole in your swing they keep going after it.”
With pitchers pounding him inside with fastballs, Villar hit .221 with a .287 on-base percentage, 32 stolen bases and 53 runs in 435 at bats with the Astros, including his two-month, late-season audition last season.
“Pitchers in the Major Leagues, if they throw a fastball and you don’t hit it they’ll throw a fastball every time,” Villar said. “Plus, they have (in-depth defensive charts). You have to adjust when they take away an area you like to hit. That was very different. I need to watch more TV (film) and adjust.”
Villar, 23, used the demotion as motivation. Heading into Thursday’s finale of an eight-game homestand, he’s been doing what the Astros asked him to do – get on base.
In 15 games with Oklahoma City, Villar is hitting .271 with a .417 on-base percentage and has collected 15 RBIs as a bonus. If Villar could repeat anything close to that in the majors he would be the Astros starting shortstop.
The stat Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow likes is 12 walks in 14 games with the RedHawks. Villar drew only 15 in three months with the Astros.
“I figured if I came to Triple-A for two or three weeks that I can play hard and get to where I need to be,” Villar said. “I’ve been working hard in the (batting) cage. I feel good. I’m gaining confidence in my swing. I’m going to just keep trying to build on what I’ve been doing and help this team win.”
Another issue has been defensive mistakes. Tuesday night, Round Rock had just taken a 2-1 lead on a solo home run. A Villar throwing error on what should have been a double-play ball allowed the Express to tack on two insurance runs.
“ His defense was decent, but he had some breakdowns towards the end,” DeFrancesco said. “He has to stay focused on defense for every play.”
One area not in question is Villar’s tremendous speed. During the RedHawks current homestand, he surpassed 200 career stolen bases in the minors and 234 for his career, including his two stints with Houston.
The best example of his speed was about this time last season, soon after Villar made his Major League debut.
Stealing home, Villar took off before the pitch was delivered. He slid across home plate before Orioles left-hander Wei-Lin Chen hurriedly threw the ball to home plate.
“He clearly has the tools to play at an elite level and the tools most players wish they had,” Luhnow said during spring training. “How he utilizes those tools, and how he really develops the most important tool — awareness of the game and situations — (is important to have) a desire to help the team win above all else.”
Villar grew up in La Vega, Dominican Republic, playing aggressively like everyone else. Villar is still learning how to harness a good quality, but he must use better common sense when it comes to taking risks.
“He plays the game at a high speed, but he has the ability to slow it down,” Luhnow said. “I think that’ll come more with his maturity. And by maturity I mean his time in the game.”
The Astros don’t have anyone locked in at shortstop, but the window will be closing soon. Carlos Correa, the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, is a 19-year-old phenom, one of the top players in the minors.
Correa already has posed eye-popping stats even though he won’t turn 20 until September. But Correa is still at high-A Lancaster so he probably won’t be ready until 2016.
“To get back to Houston I need to play good,” Villar said. “I need better concentration. Sometimes I’d get confused the way they make it more difficult, whether you bat left-handed or right-handed. I need better concentration, know what they’re trying to do, watch TV (film) to help me learn what pitches they like to throw.”