Since 2012, the fantasy community had never drafted more than three shortstops in the first two rounds (of 15-team drafts), per NFBC ADP data. This year? Six. The position appears top-heavy, but making the optimal selection early on can make or break your draft. Possible selections include Francisco Lindor and Jonathan Villar, both nested comfortably into the second round—and neither quite as safe nor risky as one might expect.
Not even a .373 BABIP could bring Villar within 15 points of Lindor's batting average. Lindor posted an elite strikeout rate on great-but-not-fantastic contact skills, so it's more likely than not he'll regress toward his debut strikeout rate. Meanwhile, Villar's contact skills suggest he should be closer to a 20% strikeout rate kind of a guy. All regression considered, Lindor's good-enough contact and line drive skills will help him dwarf Villar's attempts to optimize his speed with ground balls. (The latter's BABIP is mostly legit, by the way, but everything will have to fall just right for him to claim victory here.) Advantage: Lindor
They are nearly equals in the OBP department, but the projected offensive production of Lindor's Indians and Villar's Brewers could not be more starkly contrasted. It's not worth expending much more digital breath on it. Advantage: Lindor
No doubt Villar broke out in more ways than one; even for those who have closely followed Villar since his debut, I don't think any of us expected him to ever threaten 20 home runs. But his career hard-hit rate prior to 2017 dwarfs each of Lindor's first two seasons. It's not to say he makes better contact—Lindor does, arguably—but Villar put more than 3.5 more mph on his flyballs and line drives than Lindor did. Neither fares especially well in the fly-ball department—given their skill sets, it's probably for the best—making it difficult to really reach a verdict here. I'd be shocked if either finished with a tally outside of 12 to 15 homers in a full season. Draw
Runs Batted In
Again, baseball being a team sport, it's hard to ignore how dominant the Indians project to be, especially with Edwin Encarnacion freshly injected into the lineup. Advantage: Lindor
This was always going to be the deciding factor. There are no issues here with durability; the only reason Villar played three truncated seasons prior to 2016 is because the Brewers never gave him a proper chance. It's all a matter of if his stolen base rate is sustainable. Despite repeatedly small sample sizes, Villar's steals per 650 plate appearances steadily trended downward, from 49 in 2013 to 40 in 2014 to finally 36 in 2015. To see him suddenly steal at a rate unseen since his days in Double-A was certainly a shock—again, even to those who followed him. The change may be not skills-based but, instead, team-based: Milwaukee made (1) more than twice as many attempts than they did in 2015 and (2) their most attempts in 25 years.
This partly screams regression. A team that hadn't stole so many bases in so long likely won't do so again. But the last time this paradigm shift took place in Milwaukee (not to mention other cities), it lasted about seven years. With a glut of speedy, scrappy players on their roster—Villar, Keon Broxton, Hernan Perez, Orlando Arcia, even (not scrappy) Ryan Braun—there's no reason to think Villar's stolen base total should slip so dramatically. Sure, 60 is a lot to ask for, but splitting the difference between 2016 (62 in 679 PA) and the years prior (42 in 658 PA) is not too crazy.
For fun: Since 2001, six players age-25 or younger (including Villar) stole 60-plus bases in a single season. Jose Reyes comprises three of those seasons, but all of them occurred before age 25. He then suffered an injury-shortened season and never cracked the 40-steal threshold again. As with Reyes, injuries prevented Jacoby Ellsbury from ever sniffing 70 steals again. Even Juan Pierre slipped from 65 steals at age 25 down to 45 the next season, but he averaged 62 steals the next four seasons thereafter. Michael Bourn slipped from 61 to 52; Scott Podsednik slipped from 70 to 59; Chone Figgins from 62 to 52… Carl Crawford from 60 to 47…
Regardless of what we think, there's an obvious answer here. Advantage: Villar
We're only 1,000 plate appearances into Lindor's career, but he seems like a pretty stable asset. (Such assumptions occasionally get us until trouble, but since I'm not psychic, I'll refrain from negativity for negativity's sake.) It comes down to Villar who, for those who didn't know much about him, probably seems like an easy bet to bust, let alone regress. Across three separate seasons, Villar flashed BABIP skills (2013, 2015), power (2014), and a much-improved contact rate (2015). Yes, there's risk, but probably not as much as perceived. Advantage: Lindor
If Villar steals 30 more bases than Lindor, does it make up for his deficiencies elsewhere—in batting average (by as much as 30 points), in runs (by maybe a dozen), in RBI (by maybe two dozen)? It's tough to say, but if 2016 results are any indication, the answer is likely yes, especially as power becomes more plentiful and speed more scarce. Banking on Villar's BABIP is a dubious proposition, and historical trends don't bode particularly well for his stolen base column. But Lindor, while good, is kind of an unexciting asset, if I'm being completely honest. I'm guilty of being a Jose Ramirez propagandist, but wouldn't you rather have his virtually identical production (10/20/.290 to Lindor's 15/15/.310) at a discount of five rounds or more? Normally, I go with safety in the early rounds, and Lindor represents certainly that. But at a position that now runs pretty deep, it seems to me the pendulum has swung a little too far in terms of what the fantasy community expects from its best shortstops. To attest: Lindor, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa finished 46th, 54th, and 73rd, respectively, overall last year.
And the winner is… Jonathan Villar
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now