The last pitcher to strike out Willians Astudillo was Tyler Olson. With two on and one out in the top of the eighth of a one-run game, Olson put Astudillo away with the sixth pitch of the at-bat, a well-thrown low-away changeup. Astudillo had also struck out ten plate appearances earlier, facing Blake Snell. Snell was the first guy in the majors to get Astudillo to go down on strikes. Olson was the second. There have been only the two strikeouts. Olson’s happened on August 29.
Astudillo appeared again on September 1. He started on September 2. So far in September, Astudillo has come to the plate 55 times, and he hasn’t struck out. He is the only major-leaguer without a strikeout this month, among everyone with at least 50 opportunities. And though Astudillo has also drawn just one September walk, he’s batted .389. Overall, in a small sample in the bigs, he’s batted .350. Ordinarily we don’t cite batting average very often around these parts, but with Astudillo, it can tell most of the story. The weirdest player from the minors is making it work.
At this point, I can’t imagine I have to go back over Astudillo’s professional profile. For anyone who’s late to the story, you can catch up by clicking the link just above. Astudillo was long thought to be exceptional in the minors, because he so rarely struck out. He also so rarely walked. Now, whenever you have a strange-looking statistical profile in the minors, it’s fair to wonder what it might look like in the majors. And, of course, it’s not like Astudillo has already received thousands of major-league plate appearances. But I’ve got data to show you. You’re familiar with the three true outcomes. They’ve combined to be the scourge supposedly ruining the game. Here’s the league-wide three-true-outcomes average, going back to 1910:
There’s no questioning the rise over time. These days, three true outcomes represent a third of all plate appearances. Maybe that seems high to you, or maybe that’s actually lower than you thought. Regardless, the trend is impossible to miss. Let me now add Astudillo to the plot:
Astudillo is extraordinary. Some players post a higher-than-average TTO%, and some players post a lower-than-average TTO%, but there’s currently no one else in the Astudillo neighborhood. Here are the ten lowest rates in 2018:
Personally, I’m most interested in the strikeout component. If anything, it’s the strikeouts that are threatening to spiral out of control. Walks remain too infrequent, and so do home runs. Strikeouts are on the rise for a number of reasons. Pitchers throw harder. Relievers pitch more innings. Teams and pitchers are increasingly making use of analytics. Hitters don’t mind strikeouts as much anymore. You know most of the reasons that go into yielding a plot like this:
The rising strikeout rate might well require intervention. Strikeouts can be boring when they start to pile up. Maybe the league will think about lowering the mound. Maybe the league will think about pushing back the mound. Or maybe, just maybe, the league will allow Willians Astudillo to try to fix everything all by himself.
Where Astudillo is right now is absurd. Here are the league’s ten lowest strikeout rates at this writing:
Simmons is a tremendously talented contact hitter. He’s sitting on the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball. At the same time, his strikeout rate is almost literally three times higher than Astudillo’s. You know that strikeout rate can be one of the fastest numbers to stabilize. I don’t know if Astudillo’s true-talent rate is really between 2 – 3%, but it’s obvious he’s in possession of a special skill. Astudillo’s teammates have taken to calling him La Tortuga. In analytical circles, he perhaps should be referred to as The Antidote. As the strikeout and TTO trend has taken over the game, Astudillo offers something very different. Something every fan could support.
Now, we’ve known of Astudillo’s tendencies for a while. It’s why he was written about before he was ever promoted. But not only have we now seen Astudillo translate his performance into the bigs — it’s also a lot easier to see it and understand it in action. The minors don’t offer the same quality of video. The minors don’t offer the same quality of data. At least, not to the public. Astudillo, to this point, has seen an average of 3.02 pitches per plate appearance. The guy in second place is all the way back at 3.27. How does Astudillo end up with these results? This plot should tell some of the story:
No one else swings so much, and makes so much contact. For a fuller understanding, here are three of Astudillo’s major-league percentile rankings:
Astudillo swings more often than 95% of the other hitters. When Astudillo swings, he makes contact more often than 99% of the other hitters. And when Astudillo makes contact, he hits the ball fair more often than 99% of the other hitters. So you can see the whole chain, which almost entirely prevents Astudillo from getting to a fourth ball or a third strike. He swings too often for the balls to pile up, and he hits the ball fair too often for the strikes to pile up. One way or another, Astudillo is destined to have his offensive success almost entirely determined by his BABIP.
Wednesday provided a useful display. Astudillo batted five times against the Tigers. He generated five batted balls, which went for two outs and three singles. Here’s the first batted ball, a single:
An outside pitch punched the other way through the hole. Here’s the second batted ball:
A harmless pop-up. Here’s the third batted ball:
Another outside pitch punched the other way, but now with a defender in place. Here’s the fourth batted ball:
A grounder that might not have eluded a better and rangier shortstop. Here’s the fifth batted ball:
A flare just beyond the shortstop’s reach. Astudillo wound up going 3-for-5. With very little being different, he could’ve wound up going 1-for-5. That’s just the way that BABIP works. Astudillo isn’t fast. He bats right-handed. You wouldn’t figure him to post a bunch of high BABIPs. On the other hand, he can hit the ball in any direction, so he’s not so easy to shift, and even a modest BABIP would still yield a perfectly fine batting line for a guy who almost never strikes out. According to Statcast right now, Astudillo has an “expected” batting average of .324, and an “expected” wOBA of .353. And this is a player about whom the following was written:
But from within Astudillo’s sturdy frame is an athlete who already has appeared at six positions, including pitcher and center field, and has the ability to convert on difficult bunt plays from behind the plate. He also has good hands to receive pitches and has been graded as an above-average catcher by the Twins for his ability to steal strikes.
The Twins’ internal metrics consider Astudillo a pretty good pitch-framer. The gold-standard numbers at Baseball Prospectus tell the same story. Astudillo is interesting as a hitter alone, but when you think about his primary position — the average catcher this season has put up a .297 wOBA, and an 85 wRC+. The offensive bar to clear is low. Astudillo can handle the position, and hit relatively well for the position, and he can fill in at other positions, too. He’s unlikely to ever be the best player on a roster, but he’s showing he’s a player who belongs on a roster. There are fewer and fewer reasons to deny him the chance.
In large part, this is about Astudillo, about how a season that hasn’t gone as the Twins hoped has allowed for a certain silver lining. Who knows if Astudillo would’ve ever gotten a chance, if not for Jason Castro’s injury? The door opened up, and Astudillo walked through it. He’s positioned himself to have a real big-league career. In another, maybe smaller part, this is about a victory for the unusual. It’s kind of a victory for statistics, but more than that, it’s a victory over traditional scouting and traditional judgment. It would’ve been easy to deny Astudillo an opportunity, because he was too weird. It would’ve been easy to deny Astudillo an opportunity, because of his body. Baseball tends to look for a bunch of the same kinds of players. Astudillo resembles nobody else. Astudillo’s performed like nobody else. I’m not sure exactly how much he’ll go on to accomplish, but he’s made a statement on behalf of all the interesting but unusual players. Don’t look for reasons why players can’t be successful. Look for reasons they can. No one can do anything more than perform to the best of their abilities.
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.