The Weirdest Player in the Minors Is Now in the Majors

When you do this as a full-time job, you spend a lot of time looking at the numbers. And when you spend a lot of time looking at the numbers, you start to notice certain outliers. Then you start to root for certain outliers. It’s hard to be a fan of a team, when you’re supposed to write about everyone objectively. So you settle on other interests. The Twins just called up an interest.

The Twins selected the contract of catcher/infielder Willians Astudillo from Triple-A Rochester. Astudillo appeared in 49 games for the Red Wings this season, hitting .290 (51-for-176) with 12 doubles, seven home runs and 25 RBI.

Astudillo is now on the roster at the expense of Felix Jorge. Or, if you want to look at it differently, he’s on the roster at the expense of Taylor Motter. Jorge was designated for assignment, and Motter was placed on the disabled list. And I don’t think the Twins want to be here; they’d rather be higher in the standings. They’d rather have a healthy Jason Castro. They’d rather have a productive Miguel Sano. The Twins would like to have a lot more things going right. But there’s the story of the team, and there are the stories of the team’s individual players. Circumstances have permitted Astudillo to reach the majors for the first-ever time. I’m sure he doesn’t care about the explanation. Astudillo has been a career-long outlier, and now he’ll receive his first major-league paycheck.

When we last looked at Astudillo, it was after he pulled off a no-look pickoff throw in spring training. Astudillo has mostly been a catcher, and I couldn’t recall seeing a catcher make such a play. Within that article, I did make sure to talk about what Astudillo has been. This is another opportunity to bring him to your attention. Chris Mitchell wrote about KATOH and Astudillo in December. Carson Cistulli wrote about Matt Carpenter and Astudillo in August. Recently, Astudillo was named a midseason All-Star for the third time in his career. Let’s address said career.

He’s 26 years old, now. He made his professional debut at 17. Over a full season in the Venezuelan Summer League, he struck out just ten times. The next season, he struck out four times. The next season, he struck out two times. The next season, he went to the Gulf Coast League, where he struck out five times.

We don’t pay a lot of attention to rookie-ball statistics. There’s just more noise than we know what to do with. So let’s just move on to 2014. Slowly but surely, Astudillo has climbed the ladder. I’m going to start showing you plots. These show individual strikeout and walk rates for players at the same level as Astudillo. His is the point in yellow. His is always the point in yellow. Looking at this visually, I think, makes the point clearest. In 2014, Astudillo played in Single-A.

In 2015, Astudillo played in High-A.

In 2016, Astudillo played in Double-A.

In 2017, Astudillo played in Triple-A.

And in 2018, until now, Astudillo has again played in Triple-A.

As a professional, Astudillo has struck out 3.2% of the time. He’s walked 3.4% of the time. These past two years, in Triple-A, those rates are 4.4% and 2.8%, respectively. It’s clear that Astudillo must like to swing, and it’s clear that he must do a terrific job of just getting the bat on the ball. I can confirm those suspicions:

But Astudillo isn’t just a bat-to-ball guy. Lots of guys could post tiny walk and strikeout rates if they wanted. They’d just have to sacrifice all their batted-ball authority. Over the past five years, since reaching Single-A, Astudillo has put up a 115 wRC+. This season alone, his wRC+ is 126. He’s already hit seven home runs; his previous career high was four. In this final plot, you see 2018 wRC+, and you see three-true-outcome rates. That’s walk rate + strikeout rate + home-run rate. You’ve heard that, in the major leagues, the game is trending ever more in the direction of the three true outcomes. Astudillo can’t fix that entirely on his own, but he might be a hell of an antidote.

What we have in Astudillo is a guy who seldom strikes out, even against advanced competition. Yes, he rarely walks, but he’s developing better power, and he’s generally been productive. He’s still just 26, and he’s even stolen six bases. This year, Astudillo has nine strikeouts. Six of them, strangely, came between May 27 and June 6, over five games. Astudillo hasn’t struck out now for 13 games in a row. Over that span he’s slugged .512. Astudillo can catch, but he’s also played third base, while dabbling at first base and left field. He’s mostly played third base in Rochester since shortly before Sano was demoted. Maybe that’s a coincidence, and maybe it isn’t.

There’s not a lot of recent Astudillo video out there. Here he is, lining out:

It’s a simple swing, for the most part. Astudillo’s power is to the pull side. He must be doing something right, to so often just get the bat on the ball.

So why has it taken until now for Astudillo to get the call? Why wasn’t he ever promoted until the Twins found themselves in a bind? The Twins, incidentally, are already Astudillo’s fourth organization. Statistically, he’s done just about everything right. Even the Triple-A pitch-framing numbers see Astudillo as more or less average. But the problem is that he looks funny.

That’s maybe an oversimplification. I haven’t talked to people with various teams. But I do have an understanding of how these things work. Astudillo, officially, stands 5’9, weighing in at 225. This year’s median major-league catcher stands 6’1, weighing in at 215. Astudillo is, shall we say, squat, and even if he’s adequately athletic, it would be hard for him to look it. He doesn’t have the most eye-catching build, and then there’s the reality that his offensive numbers are so bizarre. When you’re already biased against a guy in the organization, it’s easy to find reasons to be skeptical. You can look at Astudillo and figure there’s no way he could hit in the bigs. The pitchers are too good. They won’t let him hit everything.

And maybe they won’t. Maybe they won’t! Teams do know more than I do, and teams might be right to be down on Astudillo’s potential. But, well, Tomas Telis has reached the majors, and he measures in at 5’8, 220. Dioner Navarro was measured at 5’9, 215. Brayan Pena had a 12-year big-league career, and he measured at 5’9, 240. Astudillo doesn’t come with the most athletic frame you’ve ever seen behind the plate, but there’s not much evidence that he’s defensively dreadful, and there’s something to the fact he’s played multiple positions. Being versatile is good. Being an above-average minor-league hitter is good. Teams might be scared of the outliers, because you always think baseball players should look a certain way, but at this point, what do the Twins have to lose? If they hadn’t had a miserable first half of the year, Astudillo might still be in Rochester. At least this way, we get to start to find out what he is.

I don’t know how long this’ll last. Probably not as long as I’d like. But as of Friday, you could say, with regard to Willians Astudillo, that the Twins have broken the seal. He is, at last, a major-league player, and the second promotion always comes easier than the first. There’s a perfectly reasonable chance Astudillo won’t succeed. He has, as you’ve seen, a weird-looking profile. Maybe he’ll be baited into a string of bad contact. Maybe he’ll be exposed at every position. Or maybe, just maybe, he’ll continue to be what he’s already been. They say the majors offer the toughest competition. Triple-A is only one step below. Willians Astudillo has earned the opportunity to see if his whole strange profile works. We should all fight the instinct to disparage what’s different.

We hoped you liked reading The Weirdest Player in the Minors Is Now in the Majors by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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tz
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Mr. Zero True Outcomes. Unless you count making the Show as a true outcome 😉

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Making the show might be a true outcome, but staying in it is most assuredly variable.

WARrior
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WARrior

The Antidote.

Sounds like a great nickname.