Analysis of a No-Look Pickoff

To the overwhelming majority of baseball fans, the name Willians Astudillo means nothing. The 26-year-old has never been called up to the majors, and for three years in a row now, he’s elected free agency and signed a minor-league contract. Astudillo is there in spring training right now, but so are countless professional players you’d never recognize at the next table in a restaurant. Most people don’t know Willians Astudillo. Most people will never know Willians Astudillo. But there are those out there who know exactly who he is. Astudillo has a claim to being the single most interesting player in the minors.

Astudillo has yet to strike out this spring. Over the winter he batted 223 times in Venezuela, and he struck out on just four occasions. He struck out less often than a teammate who came to the plate just eight times. This is the Astudillo story. Out of the thousands of players in the minors in 2017, Astudillo had the third-lowest strikeout rate, and the lowest strikeout rate in Triple-A. He had the lowest strikeout rate in the minors in 2016. He had the lowest strikeout rate in the minors in 2015. He had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the minors in 2014. He apparently didn’t play in 2013, but in 2012, and in 2011, and in 2010, he had the lowest strikeout rate in the minors. Astudillo doesn’t strike out. Astudillo also doesn’t walk, and he has a limited track record of hitting for power, but he doesn’t strike out. As a professional, Astudillo has 67 strikeouts in 2,154 plate appearances. Joey Gallo recorded his 67th major-league strikeout in his 140th plate appearance.

For his ability to make contact alone, Astudillo has won himself some fans. But now, he also has another claim to fame. Although Astudillo has moved around, he is still considered a catcher. And, the other day, in a spring game, he picked off Shane Robinson without looking.

There’s really not a lot more to it than that. But also, there’s plenty more to it. You’re familiar with the backpick technique. We’ve seen it a lot from, say, the Cubs. Astudillo pulled off a backpick, but it wasn’t just the timing that made it a surprise. It was that Astudillo backpicked while looking at the pitcher.

You probably have one of two responses, and how you respond says a lot about who you are. One response would be that, well, that’s impossible. It’s not impossible to throw the ball somewhere without looking, but it should be impossible to throw such a ball accurately. The other response would be that, well, that’s obviously not impossible, and Astudillo might have been able to look over without moving his head, and it’s not like first base is all the way to his side to begin with. The truth, as usual, is in between. As we can see, pulling this off isn’t impossible. It’s possible, by its very existence. But it’s also very hard, and very rare. I don’t care if it’s spring. This is worthy of celebration. There are spring moments that are hard to forget. There was the time Peter O’Brien hit a home run 120 miles per hour. There was the time Randy Johnson hit a bird. Willians Astudillo managed a no-look pickoff.

In the words of one baseball lifer:

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said a former major league catcher now serving as a pro scout for a National League club. “I’ve never seen that play work before — ever.”

In other sports, it’s not uncommon to see no-look passes. Those passes aren’t thrown hard to a target 90 feet away. Here’s the pickoff in convenient GIF form, for purposes of infinite looping.

If Astudillo made one mistake — and, really, he didn’t make any mistakes — he chose a strange time. By Astudillo’s own behavior, he looked as if he was about to make a routine return throw to the mound. Except, as he was doing that, the batter was right in his way. So, if you were watching on TV, you’d think that Astudillo was about to drill a dude in the back. In that sense, Astudillo could’ve done a better job of selling this.

But there’s no need to be picky, because, obviously, Astudillo sold this. The only people he had to trick were standing by first, and they had a different perspective. Before we move on, a revealing aside. There’s a Yankees fan in the back, who couldn’t believe his team had a baserunner caught napping.

The scowling fan rose to his feet with his arms up, making the universal sign for “what kind of idiot are you?” The fan thought such a lapse was inexcusable. How could you ever not be paying attention? A split-second earlier, while the no-look pickoff throw was on its way to first, the fan was taking a picture or shooting a video, with his phone trained on the batter, catcher, and pitcher.

The same fan who couldn’t understand how someone could be tricked by a pickoff was himself tricked by the pickoff. If you’re a player out there: Play for yourself. Fan support is revocable.

The video includes a few other angles. In real time, with the camera pointed at home, you don’t really get to see the entire play. You see the trick, and you see the aftermath. From a different view, you can see just how badly Robinson was fooled.

The whole idea behind a play like this is to catch a baserunner acting too casually. Robinson did have his head up, but there’s having your head up, and there’s paying attention. Robinson walked slowly back to the base, and that’s what Astudillo took advantage of. The third angle is probably my favorite.

Everyone here is surprised. Robinson has his head up, but after the pitch, he looks toward the pitcher. The umpire, too, looks toward the pitcher. Kennys Vargas has his head up, but you can tell from his little shuffle he didn’t think a throw would be headed his direction. And then there’s the first-base coach. Assuming that nothing was up, the coach looked briefly down at his stopwatch. And that is part of his responsibility — he has to know how fast or slow the pitcher is to the plate. But the coach is also supposed to help alert the baserunner of an attempt on his safety. Coaching sometimes asks you to do two things at once.

That little glance down at the stopwatch — that might’ve cost the Yankees an out. Which explains the coach’s own body language after the fact.

I’ve seen remarks on Twitter to the effect of, why show this in the spring? Why spoil the surprise? I get it, a little, because now Astudillo will be known for this. But it’s not like this is something he’s likely to do every game. And because it’s a potential skill, it ought to be practiced. Furthermore, remember that part about how Astudillo has yet to play in the majors. His bat isn’t terrible. He’s defensively versatile. Astudillo is in camp to impress, and this might help him make a case for a promotion. It’s hard to forget about a guy pulling off a no-look pickoff. Astudillo won’t break camp with the Twins, but maybe, just maybe, this is the year he’ll get the call he’s wanted all his life. It’s never a bad thing to make a good impression.

I’ve also come to learn that Astudillo has a history of this. From the article linked earlier, Astudillo’s worked on this as part of his routine.

Monday was actually the third time this spring Astudillo has tried it in a game.

And he’s made this work in the past! This isn’t a new skill. This is something he’s kept in his back pocket. It’s just that this time it was caught on camera.

Astudillo, who came up through the Philadelphia Phillies system, said it was the third time the play has worked for him. It also happened about three years ago in the Venezuelan Winter League and in 2015 in the Florida State League, where Astudillo played for the Clearwater Threshers.

Astudillo has experience with the no-look pickoff attempt. And the final major thing I’ve learned is that an entire organization has tried to teach this to its catchers. A tweet, from minor-league broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler:

Willians Astudillo has some established history of the no-look pickoff. The Rays, separately, as an organization, have some established history of the no-look pickoff. This isn’t the first time this has ever happened. But, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it happen. It’s the first time a lot of baseball people have seen it work. I don’t know if that means it has a future, and I don’t know if that means it doesn’t have a future, as a consequence of having worked and gone viral. This isn’t a play we’ll ever see on the regular. But Astudillo pulled off something I, personally, can’t believe. In that sense it’s fitting that he was the one who did it.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Duncan Wilson
6 years ago

I don’t think that this is the last we’ll see of the no look pick off. Just like everyone knows about the hidden ball tricks we’ll see this work occasionally, when a runner least expects it.