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Marlins address greatest weakness with Jonathan Villar trade

The Marlins will be much improved in the baserunning department if Villar comes close to replicating his 2019 season.

Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The 2019 Miami Marlins had numerous issues with their on-field performance. Thankfully this offseason, they’ve been taking steps to address them. Pounding too many balls into the ground? Let’s add renowned hitting instructor James Rowson to the major league coaching staff. Deep flies keep dying on the Marlins Park warning track? Not anymore!

Next week at the MLB Winter Meetings, the front office will have its sights set on competent relievers. Talent upgrades have already arrived on the position player side in the form of Jesús Aguilar and Jonathan Villar.

Villar, in particular, is an exciting addition because of his defensive versatility and the increased pop he demonstrated with the Orioles last season.

But most importantly, the 28-year-old switch-hitter understands how to run the bases efficiently. From spring training onward, his new teammates ought to be taking notes.

Based on FanGraphs’ accounting, Villar may have been the most valuable baserunner in the majors in 2019. He generated a league-high 10.5 BsR—signifying 10.5 runs above average—with his legs thanks to stealing bases while avoiding double plays and other potential outs. He ranked first by a wide margin, too.

2019 MLB BsR Leaders (qualified batters)

Name Team(s) BsR
Name Team(s) BsR
Jonathan Villar Orioles 10.5
Mallex Smith Mariners 8.5
Christian Yelich Brewers 8.5
Ronald Acuña Jr. Braves 8.1
Mike Trout Angels 7.1
Kolten Wong Cardinals 7.1
José Ramírez Indians 6.7
Trea Turner Nationals 6.5

(Interestingly, Dee Gordon had a near-identical 10.2 BsR in 2014, which was the season before the Marlins acquired him from the Dodgers.)

On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Marlins. Anybody who watched their games consistently would be able to guess that, yes, their 2019 team BsR was in the negative (below MLB average). The total was minus-23.9, to be precise. Keep in mind that this is a cumulative stat—the more times players reach base safely, the more baserunning opportunities they have. However, Miami’s hyper-aggressive, not-so-talented offense combined for a measly .298 on-base percentage.

It barely seems possible to plunge that far below zero under those circumstances. Indeed, this was unprecedented.

The 2019 Marlins posted the worst Base Running value in MLB history for a team that had a sub-.300 OBP.

Starlin Castro (-4.2 BsR) was one of the team’s biggest liabilities on the bases.
Fish Stripes original GIF

Before going any further, let’s get one thing straight: the Marlins’ baserunning would’ve improved in 2020 with or without Villar. Jon Berti thrived during his rookie campaign (6.4 BsR in 73 G) and could possibly crack the Opening Day roster this time around. Outfield prospect Monte Harrison has the instincts and athleticism to be practically unstoppable in this aspect of the game; he’s due for a call-up by June (at the absolute latest). Magneuris Sierra may be the speediest of the bunch and he doesn’t have any minor league options remaining. There will also be addition by subtraction now that slow-footed Starlin Castro, Martín Prado and Neil Walker have departed as free agents.

All that being said, Villar can make a substantial individual impact.

Check this out:

  • Since 2016 (the beginning of the Don Mattingly era), the Marlins have stolen third base 30 times and never stolen home
  • Since 2016, Jonathan Villar all by himself has stolen third base 32 times and stolen home once

The phrase “scoring position” has lost some of its luster in this era of frequent strikeouts. At the very least, the coaching staff should be giving Villar the green light he’s been getting in previous years to swipe third when conditions are favorable. Perhaps Villar’s track record can convince Mattingly and the Marlins to scrap their conservative stance altogether, empowering the other aforementioned burners to try for an extra 90 feet.

What about running when the ball is in play? Baseball-Reference shows Extra Bases Taken Percentage, the “percentage of times the runner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double, when possible.” Last season, Villar posted a 61 XBT%, tied for 8th among qualified MLB batters. The Marlins were at 36 XBT%. The league as a whole was at 41 XBT%.

Having made it this far, you may be surprised to learn that Villar is not actually that fast. According to Sprint Speed by Statcast, he has floated between 27.6 and 28.0 feet per second since tracking began in 2015. By middle infielder standards (he has spent the vast majority of his career as a second baseman/shortstop), that’s almost precisely league average.

But what Villar lacks as a max-effort runner, he compensates for with acceleration. Combine that with his switch-hitting—he takes most of his plate appearances as a left-handed batter—and you can see that he still gets down the first-base line in a hurry. Villar and Harold Ramirez were tied with 26 infield hits in 2019 despite Ramirez’s superior sprinting, and Villar’s .307 batting average on grounders was among MLB’s best despite middle-of-the-pack quality of contact.

Assuming that Villar keeps his legs healthy (he’s never been on the MLB injured list with a lower-body injury before) and stays motivated in a non-contending environment, he possesses a skill set that should make the Marlins significantly better and more entertaining in 2020.