Willians Astudillo was already something of a cult hero before he made this year’s opening day roster of the Minnesota Twins. He earned a video shoutout on MLB.com shortly after his major league debut last year when his first-to-home sprint left him gasping. And ESPN tweeted that he “may have broken every single one of baseball’s unwritten rules” after he kneeled in the batter’s box to watch a winter ball home run. (The kneel was “a natural reaction,” Astudillo told us. “I thought it was going to be foul.”)
But there’s another thing that makes the 27-year-old rookie nicknamed La Tortuga is perhaps the most interesting man in baseball: his bat. No one in pro baseball hits quite like he does.
Among all major league hitters in history to record at least 100 plate appearances, Astudillo ranks first in batting average (.382). While he looks something like Bartolo Colon, he’s hitting like Ty Cobb.
With the Twins and Diamondbacks Triple-A teams in 2018 and 2017, Astudillo posted the lowest strikeout rate each season among all Double-A and Triple-A batters with at least 100 plate appearances. In the farm systems of the Braves and Phillies in 2016 and 2015, he had the lowest K-rates in all of the minors. Across his entire minor league career, he struck out just 81 times in 2,461 plate appearances (3.3 percent). With velocity and strikeouts at record levels across the majors, it’s never been more difficult to make contact with a pitch. But in an age when walks and on-base percentage are prized, Astudillo has shown little interest in watching pitches go by. He walked on just 85 occasions (a 3.5 percent walk rate) across nine seasons in the minors.1
In his brief major league career, he’s striking out at a 2.8 percent rate. Two players have had lower K rates for a season since 1989: Tony Gwynn (1995) and Felix Fermin (1993 and 1995).
Astudillo has always hit. So why did it take him 10 years to make the major leagues? It’s probably that the sport didn’t know what to do with him. No one has looked, or hit, quite like the 5-foot-9, 225-pound catcher/utility man.
The Twins’ scouts were perplexed by Astudillo, said Derek Falvey, the chief baseball officer for Minnesota.
“They weren’t necessarily projecting the power or the on-base skill because of the lack of walks,” Falvey said. “I’d say [the scouts’ grade on his bat] was probably fringe-average, in that range, toward average. It wasn’t anything that stood out.”
He was such an outlier that Minnesota’s own projection system struggled to find comps when the Twins were scouring minor league free agents after the 2017 season.2
“He’s an interesting guy because he’s not someone projection systems would easily pick out,” Falvey said. “It’s a simple reason: Projection systems are based upon history. Take a random player, like Jonathan Schoop. You know what his track record was through the minor leagues. If you have a similar batted-ball profile, strikeout rate, swing-and-miss rate, all those things, there’s a chance you might become someone like him over time. That’s the way projection systems are built. They look at history to then look at the future.
“Willians is kind of his own breed.”
Astudillo is interesting for another reason, too: He’s getting better.
Astudillo’s grandfather and father were obsessed with baseball. His father had played professionally in Venezuela. Astudillo remembers a drill in which his father would kneel a few feet away and flick corn kernels toward him in their backyard in the coastal city of Barcelona, Venezuela. Astudillo’s objective was to hit the knuckling projectiles with a broomstick. He thinks his rare contact ability is part nature and part nurture.
“I think it’s just who I’ve been since the beginning, practicing with my dad and my grandfather. That close nucleus back home, just practicing,” Astudillo told FiveThirtyEight through an interpreter. “It’s something that I have. I don’t know how to explain it exactly.”
But low-strikeout, high-contact hitters are increasingly interesting for another reason beyond their scarcity: They’ve shown a knack for developing power.
The average launch angle has increased every year since Statcast began measuring balls in play in 2015, from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 degrees last season and to what would be a record rate of 13.2 degrees as it stands early this season. (Astudillo’s average launch angle was 12.2 degrees last season.) That trend suggests that more hitters are trying to hit balls above infield shifts and out of the ballpark.
Hitters with excellent contact rates but unlikely power-hitting builds — like Jose Ramirez, Jose Altuve, Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor — have become sluggers in recent seasons. As more batters are adjusting their swing planes, elite contact hitters have made the greatest offensive gains — measured in one way by isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average.
Astudillo has also gained power in recent years without having to sacrifice his contact ability. No projection system or scout saw that coming. Falvey, who had worked in the Cleveland front office before taking the Twins job, noted that Ramirez was also a high-contact hitter before he had an unlikely power breakout.
“Did anyone see Jose Ramirez turning into that kind of power hitter?” he said. “If anyone tells you they believed that at the outset — I worked there — I can tell you that’s not true. We did believe he had some interesting profile traits. Same thing with Willians.”
While Astudillo was limited to 128 Triple-A plate appearances with the Diamondbacks in 2017, his isolated power jumped to a career-best .217, up from .065 the previous year. His previous best ISO mark had been .101. (The MLB average ISO was .161 in 2018.) With the Twins last year, he followed up with a .192 ISO mark in 307 plate appearances in Triple-A and a .161 mark in 97 plate appearances with the major league club.
His power has been present early this season, too. Within his first three major league swings of 2019 on Sunday, he doubled twice. In his second start Wednesday, Astudillo went 3-for-5 with another double.
“I think it’s the experience from playing more often,” Astudillo said of his power surge. “Yes, I made contact (early in my career), but it was mostly weak contact. I was swinging at pitches a little out of the zone. Now I am not swinging at those pitches. I am being more selective.”
Astudillo ranks 35th in the frequency of swinging at pitches out of the zone among major league hitters to have recorded at least 100 plate appearances since last season, and he ranks 17th in swing percentage. But Falvey noted that Astudillo doesn’t dramatically expand his zone and offer at pitches far outside the strike zone.
“It’s not like he’s trying to chase balls over his head or out of the strike zone,” Falvey said. “He just constantly attacks strikes. He has a unique ability that when he attacks a strike, he usually doesn’t miss.”
When Astudillo goes outside the zone, he’s not going that far out of the zone. And when he swings — either in or out of the zone — he doesn’t miss. Astudillo leads baseball in contact rate (91.9 percent) and out-of-zone contact rate (83.3) among batters with at least 100 plate appearances since last season. That’s well above the MLB averages for both last season, with contact rate at 76.9 percent and out-of-zone contact at 60.1 percent.
While Astudillo’s bat is fascinating, it’s not the reason the Twins signed him in November 2017 to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. They were intrigued by his glove.
During their organizational meetings last spring, Twins officials went through the scouting reports on players in their camp. As they looked at Astudillo, they thought he could play second, third, left field and catcher — important versatility in a sport that increasingly requires roster flexibility. A Twins evaluator in the room then spoke up.
“‘He can play center, too, just ask him,’” Falvey recalled.
The club officials were amused. Center field didn’t seem like a natural fit for the stout player. But Astudillo showed them the proof: video of himself robbing a home run in a 2014 Venezuelan winter league playoff game.
Months later, after several Twins went down with heat exhaustion during a game on a sweltering afternoon last June, Astudillo trotted out to center field in Wrigley Field. He became the first player 5-foot-9 or shorter weighing more than 220 pounds to play center in a major league baseball game, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
But even given his versatility, the Twins thought he was best suited to play catcher, according to Falvey. Astudillo rated as an above-average pitch framer throughout his minor league career, according to Baseball Prospectus defensive metrics — and pitch framing has been a focus of Falvey’s since he took the reins of the Twins after the 2016 season.
While the Twins initially brought in Astudillo for his interesting glove, it’s his bat that will ultimately determine how much he plays and whether he’s a short-lived curiosity or becomes a useful major leaguer.
Even the Twins admit that they didn’t see this player emerging. But as is so often the case with Astudillo, what you expect is not what you get.
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