Stephen Villines is a 23-year-old right-handed reliever from the University of Kansas who finds himself with a non-roster invite to Spring Training in 2019 for the New York Mets. Villines only throws mid 80’s and has never been one to impress scouts; he’s nowhere to be found on the Mets top prospects list. So, what makes Villines special, and how did he even get here?
Villines originally did not receive a single offer to play D1 baseball in college and was enrolled in a community college in his home state of California. As so many great stories are told Stephen had a friend of a friend that knew the coach of the Kansas baseball team and put him in contact. Coach Price of the University of Kansas was impressed by Villines and gave him a full scholarship to play at the University of Kansas.
By the end of Villines’ first season he was placed into the closer role. That year he saved 8 games and posted a 1.50 ERA in 48 innings. By the end of his career at Kansas, Villines finished with a 2.45 ERA, 40 saves –– one shy of the BIG 12 record –– and 180 strikeouts in 194 innings. The Mets liked what they saw and selected Villines in the 10th round of the 2017 draft and signed him for $10,000.
So, what exactly is so special about Stephen Villines? Villines is listed at 6’2” and 175 pounds. The lanky right-hander does not have the build of a flamethrower and only throws his fastball mid-to-upper 80’s. His draw comes from his unorthodox arm-slot. Villines throws almost sidearmed; he describes it as below three quarters but above sidearm. Because of this arm slot, Villines has incredible movement on his pitches and the lack of speed actually works out for a pretty good combo. His fastball, while only mid-80s, has good arm side run due to his arm slot. Villines also throws a slider that sits in the mid-70’s range and has an outstanding bite, and with development could be a big-time pitch. His third pitch is a changeup, which I always found looked very tricky coming out of the arm of a sidearmer; it drops down and in, but coming from that arm slot is very difficult to pick up. Villines has a nice combo with his slider and his changeup that leads to many swings and misses.
And by many, I mean many. Last season the lowest strikeout rate Villines posted was 10.23 K/9 for St. Lucie and he had a 0.41 ERA in 16 games there. In two full professional seasons, Villines averages a 13.1 K/9 rate and had as high as a 14.6 K/9 in 24 games for Columbia last season. Villines totaled 96 strikeouts in just 66.2 innings in 2018. This is where I believe Villines can have great success as a major league reliever, but strikeout rate will have to be something he maintains through his progression. Villines has no problem striking out batters in A and AA, but the MLB is a whole different ballgame. Hitters are not as susceptible to swinging at moving, out-of-the-strike-zone pitches, and have a much easier time reading the arm slot of a sidearmer. If Villines can develop his pitches and keep batters guessing, he would be a nice change of pace reliever to come in after Noah Syndergaard goes 7 strong innings throwing 100+. For comparison, notable successful sidearm reliever Darren O’Day averaged 10.2 K/9 from 2011-2018. In the entirety of his 11-year career, O’Day averaged 9.3 K/9. I certainly do not expect Villines to maintain that 14.6 K/9 –– the 2018 K/9 leader, Aroldis Chapman, had 16.31 K/9, and he throws 100+ MPH –– but I think a K/9 of 9-10 is achievable and outstanding for a mid-80’s pitcher. Villines could very well be the next Darren O’Day, or even better.
A lot of sidearm pitchers have very poor control, tending to be wild and miss their spots, but that does not appear to be the case with Villines, and that is a HUGE plus. In his 94-career innings pitched he has only walked 14 batters. Villines’ also does a great job hiding the ball well, which pairs nicely with his arm slot; this adds to the deceitfulness of his delivery which makes him tough on hitters. Take notice of how he hides the ball behind his back until he whips it forward at the last second. Villines’ ability to hit his location combined with his movement is a nice change of pace from the velocity dominated MLB. Regarding concerns with velocity, Keith Hernandez always says, “90 is plenty if you know how to pitch.” Pair the location and movement with the arm slot and deceitfulness and the Mets have a nice little trick up their sleeves.
This season, Stephen Villines will most likely start in double-A Binghamton. If he can get his ERA down, he should be in Triple-A before mid-season. I believe he is poised for a breakout 2019 and will really make name for himself. With a strong spring, I could see the possibility of Villines finding his way on to the 40-man roster. If this is the case, he would be a valuable September call-up. Worst case scenario, I still envision a good season for Stephen Villines and a spot on the 40-man roster next season. The biggest test for Villines and the first step for his progression is how he does during his first few months in Binghamton. If he can handle the competition, the Mets will take notice.
Image from Ed Delaney