The Houston Astros did not play their first game until today. Major League Baseball tried to slip their debut by us the way a teenager past curfew tries to slip past the parents’ bedroom. That’s my working hypothesis, anyway. I can’t see any other reason for there to be, in effect, four Opening Days. Anyway, the Astros played the Yankees and won behind a strong performance from starter Scott Feldman, delaying for at least two more days their fall below .500. (Perhaps later we can set up a competition, a pool if you will, with the aim of predicting at what date the Astros will first sink 10 games below .500. I imagine in that hypothetical pool that May would be the most popular month.)
Jonathan Villar is the starting shortstop in Houston, and the consensus is that he is one of the worst regulars on the team. His career amounts to fewer than 60 games played, but it must be said that his statistics do nothing to combat that prevailing opinion. His .243 batting average is poor but not unheard of for shortstops. On that point look to Brandon Crawford’s lifetime .242 average. Plenty of people think he’s a fine shortstop, myself included. No, Villar’s second-biggest problem is that his career slugging percentage is an anemic .319, lower, in fact, than his career on-base percentage of .321. You really don’t see that often, and it speaks to a profound lack of power.
But Villar has an even bigger problem, from the standpoint of his long-term job security: the Astros have already invested a valuable draft pick (first overall in 2012) and a significant amount of money in minor league prospect Carlos Correa, and he figures to take Villar’s job sooner rather than later if Villar continues to flounder at the plate. And even though he put up a respectable 1-for-3 line in today’s game, Villar showed some tell-tale signs of floundering.
For one thing, Villar saw only eight pitches in his three plate appearances, one of which was a strikeout. I would like to go through screenshots of all eight pitches to learn what I can about his approach at the plate.
Villar’s First Plate Appearance: Bottom of the 2nd, against CC Sabathia.
Villar comes up in a pretty good spot. There’s nobody on and nobody out, but Sabathia is not on his game. Outfielder LJ Hoes has just led off the inning and his season with a solo shot over the short porch in left field. Hoes hit one home run all of last season, and in the first inning of this game the Astros put four runs on the board. Given the state of the Astros, it’s fair to say that Sabathia is beating himself.
Pitch #1: Fastball (88 mph), outside at the knees, taken for a ball
Good take here. There wasn’t much Villar could do with that pitch. Sabathia missed his target (indicated by a red dot) by several inches.
Pitch #2: Slider (80 mph), below the knees on the outside edge of the plate, taken for a strike
Another good take for Villar. The call by the umpire is questionable at best. You see how Sabathia basically hit his spot; no doubt that helped.
Pitch #3: Fastball (90 mph), chased above the zone, swinging strike
After Villar lays off two outside pitches, Sabathia’s target moves to the extreme inside edge of the plate. Sabathia missed that target badly, but Villar chased out of the zone above the belt, as hitters are wont to do. Here the swing is uncalled for. Villar is not a power hitter, and Sabathia has not established the ability to stay in the zone.
Pitch #4: Slider (79 mph), diving below the zone, swinging strike
Better hitters than Villar have been fooled by Sabathia’s slider. You can see the above swing, and it’s not pretty. Some might use the word “flailing.” Even if his bat makes contact, that’s a roller to the third baseman and nothing more.
Second Plate Appearance: Fourth inning, against CC Sabathia
Hoes again led off the inning, this time reaching base on a walk.
Pitch #1: Fastball (89 mph), at the knees over the middle of the plate, hit for single up the middle
Sabathia’s fastball again winds up to the left of his target, this time catching much of the plate and resulting in a ground ball past second base. It appears like Villar was looking for a fastball and acted decisively. There’s not much power behind it, but this is nice piece of hitting. The low pitch is more conducive to the ground ball, which Sabathia probably wants to start a double play. But this ground ball found a hole.
Later this inning, Villar gets doubled off at first on a flyout.
Third Plate Appearance: Sixth inning, against CC Sabathia
Here Villar bats with nobody on and two out, and Sabathia has settled down. Both pitcher and hitter have some measure of familiarity with each other, even after five pitches. Villar has seen Sabathia’s two main offerings, the fastball and the slider.
Pitch #1: Slider? (85 mph), inside corner at the knees, taken for a strike
We may infer that Villar has gone up looking for a fastball again. This pitch is not a bad one to hit, for it is over the plate and breaks toward Villar’s body. The call is borderline but not objectionable.
Pitch #2: Slider? (84 mph), inside edge of the plate, popped up foul out of play
Either Sabathia’s fastball grew weaker as the game wore on or he is showing a new aspect of his slider. Regardless, this pitch is same as the last, that’s easy enough to see, only a little more elevated in the zone. Villar swings either because of this or because he figures the ump will call it a strike. His timing is off and the ball is popped out of play on the third base side.
Pitch #3: Fastball (90 mph), inside half of the plate, high in the zone, grounded to third baseman
This pitch clarifies the last two, and we may now reasonably assume they were sliders. McCann set his target extremely high, hoping Villar would chase as he did in his first at-bat. Sabathia, however, misses low, and the ball passes through the zone. Villar pulls it on the ground and is thrown out.
That’s all. Villar ends up with a respectable line in the box score but swings at five of eight pitches offered to him. Those swings result in nothing more than two sharply hit ground balls, one that made its way through the infield and one that didn’t. Looking at the swings in motion, it’s easy to see that the ground ball is the most common type of contact for Villar. He is not a power threat and can be fooled. Something about his offensive skill-set needs to improve, or he’ll soon find himself riding the bench behind a rookie.