Willians Astudillo Is an MVP Candidate

Just a few weeks ago, something incredible happened. On an otherwise ordinary day in Venezuela, a pitcher named Rick Teasley became the first person to ever strike out Willians Astudillo twice in a game. Teasley is a former Rays draft pick who’s played baseball all over the globe, and Ben Lindbergh and I were delighted to chat with him for the Effectively Wild podcast. He remembered the pitches he threw to Astudillo with great detail. Those are pitches one wouldn’t soon forget.

The Venezuelan winter league regular season is now over. Astudillo wound up fourth in the league in plate appearances, with 261. Against Teasley, that one evening, he struck out two times. Against everybody else, every other evening, he struck out two times. Willians Astudillo has completed another regular season. He finished with four strikeouts. And it only gets better from there.

I don’t know much about the MVP voting in the LVBP. One thing I know is that there is, in fact, an MVP award. Another thing I know is that, this year, Astudillo is a candidate. I have learned this from Twitter! For example:

Astudillo is not without support. From one writer:

The argument there being that Astudillo’s ability to play defense gives him an edge over Delmon Young. Here is another writer and analyst:

Astudillo might win. He also might not. Either way, he’s a deserving finalist, and nothing can be taken away from his statistical performance. At this point, I don’t think I have to summarize exactly what it is that makes Astudillo so fascinating. You should remember he’s the guy who doesn’t strike out. Unsurprisingly, Astudillo didn’t forget how to make contact on the airplane down south. With the help of Pelota Binaria, I looked at everyone in the LVBP with at least 100 plate appearances. Here are the ten lowest strikeout rates:

2018-2019 LVBP
Player K%
Willians Astudillo 1.5%
Ildemaro Vargas 4.5%
Juan Graterol 5.5%
Rangel Ravelo 6.0%
Francisco Arcia 6.2%
Luis Arraez 6.3%
Jairo Perez 6.4%
Endy Chavez 6.8%
Rafael Ortega 6.9%
Teodoro Martinez 6.9%
SOURCE: Pelota Binaria

It’s Astudillo, in the place where he belongs. Now, the pitching in Venezuela isn’t nearly as good as the pitching in the majors, and the league-wide strikeout rate is lower than what we see in the bigs. But first place is first place, and Astudillo’s strikeout rate up there is just a third of the next-lowest in the table. There’s a separation of three percentage points between Astudillo and Vargas. There’s a separation of 2.4 points between Vargas and Martinez, in tenth. Everywhere he plays, Astudillo’s contact hitting is exceptional. He did this last winter in Venezuela, too.

Now, at a certain point, it might stop being so interesting to look at Astudillo’s tiny strikeout totals. I get it, you get it — he almost always makes contact. It’s like saying “Mike Trout is good.” It’s well established by now that Mike Trout is good. We get used to things — even freakish things — with astonishing haste, and our thirst is for anything different. With that in mind, here’s another table, but this time showing the LVBP leaders in home runs:

2018-2019 LVBP
Player HR
Delmon Young 19
Willians Astudillo 10
Reynaldo Rodriguez 7
Luis Jimenez 7
Carlos Rivero 7
Franklin Barreto 7
Luis Valbuena 7
Alberth Martinez 7
Olmo Rosario 6
Moises Gomez 6
Jose Vargas 6
SOURCE: Pelota Binaria

This is not a homer-heavy league we’re talking about. Runaway leaders are always fun, so feel free to take a minute to appreciate what Young has pulled off. But I’m going to keep writing about Astudillo. Why is Astudillo a candidate for the league’s MVP award? He’s played four positions, including catcher, and you can spot his point in yellow in the following plot:

Putting everything in play is one thing. Putting the ball in play with authority is another. Astudillo has hit the ball, and he’s hit the ball pretty hard, and although it’s not as if we get access to any kind of LVBP Statcast metrics, it’s easy enough to identify a clear sign of progress.

Ten home runs. That’s what Astudillo’s hit this winter. Over the previous four winters in Venezuela, he hit a combined total of ten home runs. He played his first professional game with a major-league affiliate in 2009. He hit his tenth career minor-league home run in 2016. Astudillo first drew notice in the minors for effectively being a zero-true-outcomes kind of hitter. He still doesn’t really walk, and he still doesn’t really strike out. But one outcome is beginning to emerge. This table blends all of Astudillo’s performances, at all levels, and I’ve split his career into three parts:

Willians Astudillo: Career in Chunks
2009-2012 801 0.310 0.362 0.394 0.084 0.756 2.6%
2014-2016 1446 0.299 0.331 0.380 0.081 0.711 3.3%
2017-2018 1016 0.314 0.353 0.492 0.178 0.845 3.0%

During those first four years, Astudillo hit two home runs. Over his next three years of playing, he hit 15 home runs. Over just the past two years, he’s hit 35 home runs, in hundreds fewer plate appearances. That’s happened despite Astudillo going up against some of his toughest competition. He was, of course, successful in his brief big-league stint with the Twins. It’s fun to look at the ISO and the K% columns; Astudillo has recently more than doubled his power output, without sacrificing any of his contact. I don’t know exactly how he’s done it, and I don’t know if he’s made any kind of mechanical change, but generally speaking, there’s an inverse relationship between power and contact. It’s hard to improve one without making the other one worse. Astudillo only continues to amaze.

There’s very little left for him to prove. There’s clearly nothing left to prove in Venezuela. It was wonderful to see Astudillo break through last season, but it remains unclear how the Twins might intend to use him moving forward. At catcher, Jason Castro should be healthy again. At DH, the Twins added Nelson Cruz. At first base, they have C.J. Cron and Tyler Austin. At third base, they have Miguel Sano. In left field, they have Eddie Rosario. The path isn’t all that clear, but now, more than ever, Astudillo appears deserving of regular playing time. It’s not simply that he’s done well in Venezuela. Delmon Young has done well in Venezuela. It’s Venezuela. What’s important is that Astudillo has proven himself everywhere. He still makes constant contact, and now he’s added some power, to go with his ability to catch. All the recent numbers point in one direction. Astudillo might well end up winning the Venezuelan MVP award. One should hope he’s also awarded a major-league salary some months after that. Somehow, he’s only made himself all the more interesting, and he was already one of the most interesting players in the world.

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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