Stephen Villines was a tenth round pick in 2017 who received a mere $10K bonus, a pick aimed at saving the Mets money for other draft picks. Instead, Villines has blossomed into one of the best value picks of the draft, and has posted extraordinary numbers across four levels of the minor leagues so far. If not for the Mets’ extremely slow developmental plan with college draft picks, Villines would’ve likely seen major league time last season, and he should certainly get some time with the major league team in 2019.
The absurd quality of Villines’ performance is best summed up by his K-BB%. In 2017, he posted a 40.3% mark in Low-A, then posted marks of 35.5%, 24.7%, and 34.9% across three levels in 2018. Oh, at the one level (Advanced-A) where he slipped below 30%, he had an ERA of 0.41 in 22 innings. Only three major league relievers - Edwin Diaz, Josh Hader, and Dellin Betances - had a K-BB% of 30% or better last season, and while no one is claiming Villines will ever be that good, it does contextualize how excellent he was in the minors last year.
What makes this performance even more enjoyable is the package it comes in. Villines doesn’t have prototypical size, at 6’2” and 175 lbs. His fastball sits in the high-80s, a velocity range that usually gets you blasted off the field as a right handed reliever. His slider is effective, but doesn’t have movement one would typically refer to as ‘wipeout’. Yet Villines makes this underwhelming tool kit work thanks to his funky side arm slot and his deceptive mechanics. It’s a refreshingly different package in an era where most relievers are pumping high 90’s gas and throwing razor-blade sliders.
Realistically, becoming a major league reliever in any capacity is a good result for Villines. PECOTA already says Villines is more than that, however, projecting him for a a 3.65 ERA and 60 strikeouts over 49 major league innings. His projected 4.18 DRA isn’t quite as good as the Mets’ best relievers, but it’s a big improvement over the plethora of shuttle arms that Villines will have to edge out for a role in the backend of the bullpen.
The upside for more beyond that is apparent. Making comps to the handful of other pitchers with similar aesthetics to Villines (Joe Smith, Brad Ziegler, Chad Bradford, to name a few) is fraught with survivorship bias, but Villines’ sterling numbers make the comparison at least a touch more plausible. Prospects, especially unheralded pitching prospects with a wonky set of tools, will break your heart, which is important to keep in mind. Villines, however, has done enough to make us eager to witness what could be one of the better success stories of the decade. Hopefully his 2019 can make good on that dream.