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Villar looks to Votto's swing for inspiration

Brewers second baseman struggled last season following breakout 2016
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

PHOENIX -- If you notice Jonathan Villar choking up on his bat during a Cactus League game in the coming weeks, he may be trying to channel a little bit of Reds great Joey Votto.

During the final month of his maddening 2017 season, Villar and Brewers first-base coach Carlos Subero spent time dissecting video of Votto's famously selective plate appearances, which often feature Votto choking up to flick tough two-strike pitches foul until he can find one to hit. For the free-swinging Villar, there were some lessons there, and he took copies of video with him to the Dominican Republic for winter ball.

PHOENIX -- If you notice Jonathan Villar choking up on his bat during a Cactus League game in the coming weeks, he may be trying to channel a little bit of Reds great Joey Votto.

During the final month of his maddening 2017 season, Villar and Brewers first-base coach Carlos Subero spent time dissecting video of Votto's famously selective plate appearances, which often feature Votto choking up to flick tough two-strike pitches foul until he can find one to hit. For the free-swinging Villar, there were some lessons there, and he took copies of video with him to the Dominican Republic for winter ball.

"It was more of, 'Go watch him,'" Subero said. "Not, 'Do this or do that. Just watch. What do you see?'

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"[Villar] is real smart. The thing with him, as we all know, is his aggressive nature and how he has to calm that down. But he is always on top of things."

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Whether or not the Votto video played a role, the 26-year-old Villar found success during his annual winter stint with Aguilas in the Dominican Republic. Playing for an Eagles team that went all the way to the Caribbean Series final, Villar walked as often as he struck out -- nine times apiece -- in 77 at-bats, according to statistics from Aguilas' website.

"That's perfect for me," Villar said. "I took video [of Votto] to my house and I saw the long at-bats he was taking. I saw how short he swung with two strikes, how he grabs high on the bat and gets a little closer to the plate. That guy is unbelievable."

No one expects him to be Votto, but the Brewers are hoping they see more of the 2016 Villar than how he soured in 2017. After performing as a three-win player in 2016 (according to the FanGraphs measure of WAR) with an .826 OPS and a Major League-leading 62 stolen bases, Villar turned down a contract extension reportedly worth $23 million before slumping to a .665 OPS in '17, during which he was a half-win below replacement. He saw at-bats slip away, first to Eric Sogard and then to in-season acquisition Neil Walker. A brief stint in center field went so poorly that the Brewers pulled the plug on it, and Villar took only 88 plate appearances over the final two months of the season.

Video: STL@MIL: Villar smashes a two-run dinger to left

On Saturday, Villar said he was also dealing with a tight right shoulder after returning from last spring's World Baseball Classic.

"That's no excuse. That's my bad," Villar said.

At the moment, Villar and Sogard are the Brewers' primary options at second base, so it appears Villar will get an opportunity to bounce back.

"How I look at it is he's capable of a 2016," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "That's why you give players like that chances, because he produced a season that was really impactful and at the top of the lineup added a baserunning threat, a power threat, an on-base threat. There's not many of those guys.

"Where it ends up, I don't know, but players that have produced that kind of season in the big leagues, that's what you're working to get back to."

What is Counsell's best explanation for what happened to Villar in his second season with the Brewers?

"Speculating about what happened is almost -- we can come up with seven reasons, but do we have the perfect answer? No," Counsell said. "We'll have ideas that we'll work on. … I think it's important that he understands -- and I think he does -- that he didn't have a good year. He's got to have confidence in the things that we teach and the things that he believes can get him back on track."

Counsell added, "It's a year removed. It's not four years ago. We're not at the end of his career. We're in the best time of his career, age-wise, for something to bounce back."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Jonathan Villar