Villar nearing season goal of playing all 162

September 25th, 2019

TORONTO -- In late July in Anaheim, two days after he’d swung the Orioles to a marathon, 16-inning victory at Angel Stadium, woke up with a cramp in his left hamstring. The injury was minor, but nagging, the type that commonly arises over the course of a Major League season.

Villar was supposed to play second base that night. A few hours prior to first pitch, the Orioles switched him to designated hitter, and he spent the time between each of his four plate appearances getting stretched in the trainer’s room. He was back at shortstop the next night.

“I put that in my mind: I don’t want to miss one game,” Villar said. “I’m prepared mentally to play every day, not miss one day, because I’m here to help the team. That’s very important for me.”

Flash forward to the present day, and Villar has positioned himself to do exactly that. He didn’t miss a game before that series in Anaheim and hasn’t missed one since, appearing in all 159 of the Orioles’ 2019 contests through Wednesday. Barring any unforeseen issues, Villar is expected to appear in their final three as well and make it 162 of 162.

“That’s so undervalued: a guy who can play every day in this grind that we go through in six months,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He keeps his body in really great shape and has had a really good year. It’s pretty rare.”

How rare? Villar is one of five MLB players with a chance to do so this season, along with Whitt Merrifield and Jorge Soler of the Royals, Marcus Semien of the A's and Starlin Castro of the Marlins. Villar would be the 10th Oriole not named Cal Ripken Jr. to do it, and first since Jonathan Schoop in 2016.

Of the 76 players to do it since Ripken retired after the 2001 season, six have been Orioles. That’s tied with Kansas City for the most of any club.

“That guys loves to play,” Hyde said. “I tried to get him out of the game last night, and he wouldn’t come out. He doesn’t want to come off the field.”

Villar said he comes by that desire honestly; even as a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic, he said he didn't watch baseball because he was too busy playing it. The opportunity he received in Baltimore this year is another factor. Villar said he wanted to prove he could be an everyday player after the Brewers traded him to Baltimore for Schoop at the 2018 non-waiver Trade Deadline. In Milwaukee, Villar hit 19 home runs and stole 62 bases playing every day in '16, but he was subsequently squeezed into a platoon role. He also spent three seasons bouncing up and down with the Astros before they traded him to the Brewers in '16.

“They’ve given me more opportunity to play, so I need to take that opportunity," Villar said of the Orioles. "I’m here, so I need to do what I can do.”

That’s translated into a loaded back of the baseball card for Villar, who entered play Wednesday the Orioles’ leader in runs, steals, walks and WAR. He’s hitting .274 with a .796 OPS and 24 homers, 38 steals and 109 runs scored.

Over the past two seasons, Villar averaged .251 with a .689 OPS, 13 home runs and 29 steals. In 2019, he and Ronald Acuña Jr. are the only MLB players with at least 20 homers, 35 stolen bases and 100 runs.

“He’s always shown tools. The consistency of his game, that’s improved,” Hyde said. “I think he still has a lot of improving to do, but he has a nice game.”

The rub is this: The fact that Villar largely put it together might mean he’s on the move again soon. He’s just 28, under team control through 2020 and likely in for a sizable raise from his $4.83 million salary in arbitration. The Orioles are fully expected to explore his trade market this winter, as they did at this year’s deadline. Coming off a full, career year, Villar's value may never be higher.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with other teams,” Villar said. “But I know that I feel comfortable here.”