Villar joins 20-20 club as O's rout Rays

Infielder continues torrid second half to help Baltimore earn series split

August 25th, 2019

BALTIMORE -- A month ago, left the desert a mess. After going hitless in 15 at-bats over the course of an Interleague series with the D-backs, the Orioles’ middle infielder sought solutions, and he subsequently went to work with hitting coaches Don Long and Howie Clark. Together, they recalibrated Villar’s swing from the hands down, encouraging Villar to start his load sooner in an effort to improve his timing.

One night and five hitless at-bats later, those changes helped Villar connect for the home run that capped Baltimore’s marathon 16-inning win in Anaheim. By Sunday’s 8-3 victory over the Rays at Camden Yards, they had been routinely plain to see. And with them as a guiding force, Villar has carved his place in Orioles history.

Villar capped a dominant 30-day stretch by becoming the sixth Oriole to join the 20-20 club, and the first since Manny Machado in 2015. Villar did so courtesy of his career-high 20th homer of the season, a projected 443-foot solo shot off Rays lefty Jalen Beeks in the fourth. It was the longest career home run as a right-handed batter for Villar, who has also stolen 28 bases.

“I hit that one perfect right there,” Villar said. “You never know, maybe I’ll make it 30-30.”

That remains unlikely with 31 games left to play, but not impossible. All Villar has to do is sprinkle in a couple more steals and replicate this torrid run, which he has quietly spent as one of the Majors’ most productive players. All told, Villar is hitting .364/.453/.619 with nine homers and 11 steals since late July.

His 53 hits since the All-Star break are tied with Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor for the most among MLB switch-hitters.

“He’s just a really good player, and he has a ton of tools and can do a ton of things,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “His second half has been fantastic.”

As of the moment, this is the small company he keeps:

List of 20-20 seasons, Orioles history
Paul Blair (1969): 26 HR, 20 SB
Don Baylor (1975): 25 HR, 32 SB
Reggie Jackson (1976): 27 HR, 28 SB
Brady Anderson (1992): 21 HR, 53 SB
Anderson (1996): 50 HR, 21 SB
Anderson (1999): 24 HR, 36 SB
Manny Machado (2015): 35 HR, 20 SB
Villar (2019): 20 HR, 28 SB

In terms of MLB players who’ve accomplished the feat this year, it’s an even more exclusive club:

Christian Yelich (MIL): 41 HR, 25 SB
Ronald Acuna (ATL): 36 HR, 30 SB
Starling Marte (PIT): 22 HR, 24 SB
Jose Ramirez (CLE): 20 HR, 24 SB

“You don’t see many 20-20 guys anymore,” said Dylan Bundy, who earned Sunday’s victory by holding Tampa Bay to three runs, two earned, over five innings.

The Orioles have never had a 30-30 guy, though they consider Villar talented enough to at least approach both plateaus. His contributions Sunday came amid the second consecutive offensive breakout for the Orioles, who also got four RBIs from Renato Nunez, five hits and a homer No. 13 from Anthony Santander and three DJ Stewart knocks to earn a series split.

But Villar was the headliner, given how the 28-year-old is surging toward a career year.

Hyde believes Villar, who swiped 62 bases for the Brewers in 2016, could have closer to 40 this year given more favorable game situations.

“I think he’s a 20-plus homer guy with 40-plus stolen base ability,” Hyde said. “That’s tough to find, especially playing in the middle infield.”

For the Orioles, the challenge has been getting Villar to showcase that ability consistently, without the defensive and baserunning lapses (AL-high eight caught stealings) that occasionally mask it. On the offensive side, the issue is more mechanical. Per Long and Clark’s suggestions, Villar said he has resolved to streamline his swing by limiting head movement and getting underneath the ball less. It has led to increased behind-the-scenes work with his unique double-barrel practice bat, among other drills.

“We needed to keep them together, my hands and my head,” Villar said. “Now I’m focused on finishing the season hard.”