Willians Astudillo has captured baseball’s collective imagination — and for good reason.
In an age when the march toward three true outcomes seems inevitable and indomitable, Astudillo arrives as an outlier of outliers, an offensive peformer who never walks or strikeouts, whose batting line would make much more sense if it were produced by a 19th century hitter.
When the Twins called up Astudillo late last month, Jeff Sullivan examined his curious numbers at every professional stop. It is believed Astudillo first appeared in these Web pages as Carson’s “guy” way back in 2016.
Fittingly, Astudillo has not struck out or walked through his first 14 major-league plate appearances.
Said Astudillo of his approach to the Star-Tribune:
“Coaches try to change my approach,” he said. “It’s just who I am. I’m a free swinger.”
Said Twins baseball operations chief Derek Falvey to the Star Tribune:
“I don’t think he gets to [strike] three very often. He’s an aggressive guy. It’s not a secret. I’m not revealing anything the advance work won’t show. He attacks the ball and makes good contact. Sometimes that profile plays well off the bench when you think about different types of guys to bring in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning.”
His defensive profile is highly unusual as well.
I'm either hallucinating again or WIllians Astudillo, who hasn't played 2B since 2011, is going to play middle infield in a big league game today. https://t.co/376jMkAjk5
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) July 3, 2018
Eric wasn’t hallucinating, but it gets even more surreal: the Twins also played Astudillo for an inning in center field on June 30. You don’t often see a 5-foot-9, 225-pound player like Astudillo play center. In fact, you never have. Wrote Ben Lindbergh in a piece on the man capturing our collective imagination and hearts:
I could quiz you on how many major leaguers listed at 5-foot-9 or shorter and heavier than 215 pounds have ever played center field, but I’ll save us all some time. It’s one: Willians Astudillo.
Astudillo is primarily a catcher, and BP’s framing metrics graded his minor-league receiving in a positive manner, but he’s played all over the field and has already manned four positions for the Twins. In an age when versatility is prized, Astudillo is an awkwardly shaped human Swiss Army knife.
But it’s something else that Jeff and Ben addressed that is of interest — namely, Astudillo’s power surge.
If he remains a low-slug, low-strikeout, low-walk player with versatility, his ceiling might be that of a reserve major leaguer. In 2016, a scout joked to Baseball America that Astudillo could slash “.280/.280/.280… with a .280 BABIP.”
But what if Astudillo is turning into a different kind of hitter, one with power, while consolidating his contact gains? After all, it is high-contact hitters who have benefited most from adding loft to their swings, players like Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Daniel Murphy, Jose Ramirez, and Justin Turner.
Altuve’s power game transformed him from something of a curiosity, a pint-size contact hitter, into an MVP.
There’s not much minor-league footage of Astudillo which adds to his allure. But consider this grainy video from earlier this season in Rochester:
What if Astudillo can become something of a poor man’s Altuve, a player who retains his extreme contact ability but becomes a league-average power hitter? Combine that with his defensive versatility and he becomes more than a novelty. He potentially becomes a useful, if not above-average, major-league player.
And according to Lindbergh’s reporting, the Twins have encouraged Astudillo to better hunt pitches to damage.
“At a certain point, we encouraged him to look to do more damage early in the count, and not just put the ball in play,” says Twins assistant director of player development (and former major leaguer) Alex Hassan. “His strikeout rate even after that nudge did not go up at all, which was somewhat surprising.”
The change might have actually begun before joining Minnesota, as Astudillo cut his ground-ball rate to a minor-league career low of 36.0% last season with Arizona, a five percentage point decline from his 2017 season in the Braves’ organization. In Triple-A earlier this year, he has reduced his ground-ball rate further, to 34.3%. He posted a career-best .217 isolated slugging mark last year in 40 games at Triple-A with Arizona and a .199 mark in Rochester this spring. Prior to those numbers, he often failed to reach triple-digits in ISO.
Players like Altuve, Lindor, and Murphy with strong bat-to-ball skills have not sacrificed contact while adding power. So perhaps that is reason to believe that Astudillo will not have to, either. Perhaps it’s reason to believe that this 26-year-old who has been toiling in the minor leagues since 2009 might be more than a novelty act. He might be becoming something more, a fascinating but also valuable big leaguer, able to add power without sacrificing contact, while playing anywhere and everywhere on the field. Astudillo is perhaps just what baseball needs.
Anyone could have had Astudillo after last season. The Twins signed him to a minor-league contract with a spring-training invite on Nov. 30. It’s possible they have been rewarded not just a with great story but a good baseball player.