Can Padres Third Baseman Christian Villanueva Keep up the Pace?

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Major League Baseball announced their Team of the Month on Twitter today, and the names were quite impressive. Mike Trout, a two-time American League MVP winner, was in the outfield along with Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts. Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius and his ten home runs were there, as well as former Triple Crown Winner Miguel Cabrera.

But there, at third base on Major League Baseball’s Team of the Month, was San Diego Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva. A surprise pick considering the other third basemen in the league, Villanueva was selected over the likes of Nolan Arenado and Jose Ramirez for the honor. But why Villanueva? Simply put, the Padres’ third baseman has been hitting like a man possessed, sporting a .321/.411/.692 batting line while his eight home runs are tied for the Major League lead among third basemen.

He has certainly been the most productive bat in the Padres’ lineup, but it wasn’t always that way. He vastly struggled in the beginning of the season, with the only hope of progress being a three-home run game against Colorado. He has turned it around, and recently had an 11-game hitting streak snapped, taking a starting spot from Chase Headley and running for the hills.

Initially signed by the Texas Rangers out of Mexico, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs along with Kyle Hendricks for Ryan Dempster in 2012. Once with the Cubs, he was making a solid name for himself until he missed the 2016 season with a broken leg. There was also a player named Kris Bryant who was drafted second overall out of the University of San Diego in the 2013 MLB Draft who was steamrolling through the Minor Leagues, so that didn’t really help Villanueva’s case for ascension to the Major League club. The Cubs figured they could do without him, and granted him free agency, and the Padres pounced on the opportunity to sign the third baseman.

After spending time in El Paso, Villanueva made his mark in a September call-up, hitting .344 with four home runs. He impressed the Padres’ front brass so much, they gave him a shot at a starting role in spring training, which he lost to veteran Chase Headley, but they did their due diligence to find a spot for him in the lineup.

Now, the Padres wouldn’t know what they’d be doing if they didn’t have the Jalisco native in the lineup. He has more home runs than Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer as well as the highest batting average on the team. His consistency at the plate has been much better as of late, but can he keep up the pace?

Looking a little bit deeper into his statistics, Villanueva has shown a high strikeout rate at the plate, carrying a 26.7 K% against an 8.9 BB%. Villanueva has usually carried a higher K% than most of his teammates so it is natural for him to have it like that, but with a team as free-swinging as the Padres, it may not be so good. His K rate may be explained by how much he swings at pitches outside the zone, as his O-Swing rate (rate at which a player swings at pitches outside the strike zone) is at 40.3%, lower only than Wil Myers’ 47.3% and a handful of pitchers forced to hit for themselves. This rate is balanced out by his Z-Swing rate (rate at which a player swings at pitches inside the strike zone) and his overall swing percentage, which rate out at 75.3% and 54.4%, respectively (All of these stats are courtesy of FanGraphs).

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Vlilanueva also sports a high BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), which is certainly pulling his batting average in the right direction. With a .370 BABIP, Villanueva has shown that there have been some hits that have certainly gone his way, with maybe some bloop hits or hard ground balls going for hits when they probably shouldn’t have. That high number is sure to see a drop in the coming month (an average BABIP is around .300) as a .370 BABIP is very hard to sustain in this day and age.

His ability to produce extra base hits, however, should stay pretty consistent as his ISO (Isolated Power) is currently at quite a high number at .372. While that number is sure to drop, as are most of his other stats, Padres fans can take comfort in the fact that his ISO numbers in the minors were usually around the .150-.200 range, an excellent number considering the average ISO number is around .140 (again, courtesy of FanGraphs for the stats).

His batting splits showcase another problem for him, as he has done much better versus left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitchers, as evidenced by his .481 batting average against southpaws while batting .235 against fellow righties. His power has also come against left-handed pitchers, with all but one of his home runs coming off left-handers. What may be the most jarring evidence of his poor splits is his 1.829 OPS against left-handers versus a .723 OPS against right-handers. While these numbers are eye-opening, they should be taken with a small grain of salt, as Villanueva has had 27 at-bats against left-handers while having 51 at-bats against right-handers. These are numbers that shouldn’t worry Padres fans at the moment, but should still be kept a close eye on.

So we ask again, can Christian Villanueva carry on his torrid pace he set for himself? With a high BABIP, paired with a tendency to swing at a lot of pitches and vastly differentiating splits, it’s most likely that the Padres third baseman will find himself returning to a more mundane batting average, perhaps somewhere in the .250-.275 range while sporting an OBP in the mid .300’s, thanks to his free-swinging ways. However, he will still remain an excellent source for driving in runs while keeping his starting job, barring an injury or Ruthian performances from Headley and/or Cory Spangenberg (who is currently sporting an El Paso Chihuahuas jersey), despite how much he regresses (or progresses) later in the season.

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