Villar's bat is turning heads at camp

Bleier slated for spring debut; Wynns' MRI negative; Hart claimed by Dodgers

March 7th, 2019

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Three offseasons ago, Jonathan Villar was playing in the Dominican Winter League when a teammate approached him, carrying something only remotely resembling baseball equipment. The long, unusually shaped piece of wood in his hands made Villar double take.

“Is that a bat?” Villar remembers asking. “The first time I saw it, I didn’t even think it was a bat.”

This spring, Villar is the one eliciting those reactions in Orioles camp. Every morning he walks to the cage wielding the weirdest of bats: a double-barreled practice model he begins his daily routine with. His Camwood Hands-n-Speed ash model features an extra-thick knob and a fungo-size barrel, neither odd features for a drill bat. What separates Villar’s is what lies in between – a second barrel that sits just above the bat’s handle, like a built-in donut. The whole thing more resembles a paddle or a dining room table leg than a piece of lumber.

“I use it when it feels like my swing is too long,” Villar said. “This bat is too heavy to swing long -- when you do, the barrel drops.”

Technically, the bat weighs about the same as the 33 1/2-ounce one Villar uses for games. But by disproportionately distributing the weight toward the handle, it creates an illusion of heaviness near the hands -- and forces the batter to swing it on a more direct path to the baseball. Any uppercut results in a mishit, or a plain miss.

In short, it encourages a level swing in a launch-angle-happy world.

“It forces you to throw your hands at the ball,” Villar said. “When I take a couple of swings with it, I feel like I can keep my hands inside the ball.”

Doing so, Villar says, has helped him add power without overhauling his swing; enough to allow him to still earn much of his living with his legs. Villar has sprinkled in 44 home runs since 2016 and stolen 120 bases, while maintaining one of the game’s highest ground-ball rates.

Hitters have always looked for ways to speed up their hands, and Villar is far from the only modern player workshopping creative ways to do so. In Orioles camp alone, Eric Young Jr. wears weighted batting gloves. Others routinely use donuts or thick-knobbed bats to simulate similar effects. But Orioles hitting coach Don Long says he’s never seen a bat like Villar’s over his more than three decades in pro ball.

Villar hadn’t either before that winter ball teammate -- longtime Minor League outfielder Ricardo Nanita -- returned from playing in Japan with it. Though Villar fell in love quickly, procuring one for himself wasn’t easy.

On the barrel, it gives a reason why: the words “Patent Pending” printed in block lettering.

“Do you want to name it?” Villar quipped.

From the trainer's room

Richard Bleier’s long, slow march back to the mound is scheduled to hit another milestone Saturday, when the left-hander is slated to make his Grapefruit League debut. Doing so would mark his first game action since June 13, when Bleier suffered a Grade 3 left lat tear that required surgery. He’d arguably been the Orioles' best reliever prior to the injury, posting a 1.93 ERA across 31 appearances.

• Sidelined since March 3 with oblique soreness, catcher Austin Wynns said Thursday that an MRI on his left side came back negative. That qualified as good news for Wynns and O’s manager Brandon Hyde, who said the injury should only sideline Wynns for a couple of days. But by nature, oblique injuries tend to linger, and Wynns’ chances at a big league job would be compromised should he miss any significant time. He’s currently in a four-horse race with Jesus Sucre, Carlos Perez and Andrew Susac for the backup catcher role, though Wynns is the only member of that group already on the 40-man roster.

• The temporary concern the Orioles felt Wednesday regarding left-hander Paul Fry’s velocity is now being considered a false alarm. Fry confirmed he felt no pain while pitching the seventh inning of Wednesday’s 9-6 win over the Rays, when, by surprise, a low velocity reading flashed across the scoreboard at Charlotte Sports Complex. That prompted a visit from Orioles pitching coach Doug Brocail, who Fry quickly shooed away. After the incident, Fry said he “checked with our guys and they had it higher.”

“The board was slow yesterday,” said Fry, whose fastball averaged 91.3 mph in 2018, per Statcast. “Everything felt fine.”

Roster move

Designated for assignment on Friday, left-handed pitcher Donnie Hart has been claimed off waivers by the Dodgers, the Orioles announced. The transaction ends a five-year tenure in the organization for Hart, a former 27th-round pick who went on to post a 3.43 ERA across 93 Major League appearances with Baltimore.

Up next

Despite being three weeks late to camp due to visa issues, Sucre will make his Grapefruit League debut Friday, with the backup catcher's competition still wide open. Andrew Cashner and Nate Karns are among those set to take the hill when the Orioles return home to face the Red Sox at 1:05 p.m. ET from Ed Smith Stadium. The O's will pay special attention to Karns, whose comeback from several arm injuries hit a minor snag earlier this month.