For the past decade, the Minnesota Twins’ pitch-to-contact staff has been baseball’s Gondor. Besieged but standing strong, the last alliance of soft-tossers and junkballers descended from Brad Radke has resisted the sport’s ever-rising strikeout rate. The last time Twins pitchers’ collective strikeout rate ranked in the top half of teams was 2007, when Johan Santana and Joe Nathan were still Cy Young contenders. Since then, Minnesota’s leaguewide ranks have looked like this: 24, 24, 23, 30, 30, 30, 30, 30, 28, 29. Not by complete coincidence, the Twins won zero playoff games over that 10-season span, but they made crucial contributions to the making-contact cause.
Now, even that durable bulwark is crumbling. Through 81 games, Twins pitchers have struck out 22.9 percent of the hitters they’ve faced—above the 22.3 percent MLB baseline. (Blame José Berríos.) That leaguewide level is on track for a 13th consecutive spike, and why wouldn’t it be? There’s no one still standing in the strikeout’s way. Even Twins pitchers have thrown in the towel and surrendered to the fascist strikeout scourge. If we can’t turn to Twins pitchers to stem the strikeout tide, what hope do we have of bringing back the ball in play?
But don’t despair yet: Just when it looks like the batted ball is doomed, a new contact hero has arisen. And wonder of wonders, he’s a Minnesota Twin.
Willians “A Stud” Astudillo (nickname patent pending) was promoted from Triple-A Rochester on Friday and made his major league debut Saturday, replacing Eddie Rosario in left field when Rosario succumbed to heat exhaustion. Facing current Cubs and former Twins reliever Brian Duensing, who for seven seasons served with distinction on Minnesota’s anti-strikeout staff, Astudillo didn’t wait long, poking the first pitch he saw past Javier Báez at second for a single. One pitch, one swing, one ball put in play: There couldn’t have been a better introduction to the Astudillo experience.
Astudillo, who’ll turn 27 in October, is baseball’s rarest beast: In an era when walks, strikeouts, and pitches per plate appearance are all on the upswing (so to speak), Astudillo doesn’t walk, doesn’t whiff, and doesn’t wait long to do his business in the batter’s box. He’s as anti–true outcomes as professional players come.
Astudillo first demanded America’s attention in March, when he picked off a runner without looking toward first.
Although the play was a first for some seasoned observers, Astudillo had done it before; being unusual is sort of a habit for him. Every player is unique in one way or another, but Astudillo is singular in more ways than most. The scatter plot below shows the combined 2018 Triple-A and MLB walk and strikeout rates through Sunday of every hitter who’s made at least 200 plate appearances at either level or across both levels combined. Astudillo has made only 199 plate appearances, but we’ll include him anyway. You won’t have to hunt hard to find him.
In his 188 Triple-A plate appearances and 11 MLB plate appearances so far this season, Astudillo has walked five times (2.5 percent) and struck out nine times (4.5 percent). Aside from the fact that he finally made his major league debut, that type of performance is nothing new for him: He’s been doing this since he broke into pro ball with the Phillies organization in 2009. Over nine seasons, Astudillo has made 2,797 plate appearances and slowly, reluctantly accumulated 97 walks (3.5 percent) and 87 strikeouts (3.1 percent).
In the process of assembling that improbable career line, Astudillo has produced some of the most strikeout-averse single seasons on record. The Baseball Prospectus database includes minor league records from MLB Advanced Media dating back to 2005 and incorporating almost 42,000 individual player-seasons of at least 100 plate appearances (counting 100-PA stints at multiple levels in the same season as discrete entities). Ranked by the lowest strikeout rates relative to the league, five of the top 11 entries and eight of the top 30 belong to Astudillo alone.
Counting non-MLBAM sources, BP possesses minor league stats from more than 94,000 100-PA stints, beginning in 1978. With the caveat that the stats aren’t complete or official for all seasons and leagues, the database doesn’t contain any record of a minor league hitter at any level striking out less often in a stay of at least 100 PA than Astudillo did when he went down on strikes just twice in the 2011 Venezuelan Summer League. The only hitter who beat that rate relative to his league was a Bronx-born catcher with the extremely Bronx-sounding name of Sal Agostinelli, who struck out once in 108 plate appearances in the 1983 Appalachian League and later topped out at Triple-A.
As one could infer from Astudillo’s walk and K rates, the man has no time to take pitches. On every upper rung of the minor-league ladder, Astudillo has frequently finished with the lowest (or nearly the lowest) rate of pitches seen per plate appearance and the highest (or nearly the highest) swing rate. His swing rate through his first 11 MLB plate appearances—58.8 percent—probably won’t budge far from there. The only qualified hitter this season with a higher swing rate than that is Javier Báez, who has one of the game’s lowest contact rates. Astudillo, meanwhile, has swung at 20 big-league pitches and has whiffed only three times.
According to FanGraphs’ rest-of-season projections, Astudillo is destined to be the big leagues’ least-frequent walker and least-frequent strikeout victim. The FanGraphs forecast expects him to walk, strike out, or homer in only 12.5 percent of his plate appearances, easily the lowest three true outcomes rate of any hitter projected to play as many games.
Astudillo’s game has made him a cult figure for years among seamheads who mine the minors for the strange-looking stat lines that lurk deep within. He’s already internet-famous for a player who never appeared on a preseason prospect ranking, aside from his no. 28 placement on Baseball America’s 2015 Phillies list, in a year when BA advised “You might want to avert your eyes” in reference to the Phillies’ 22nd-ranked system. Averting one’s eyes from Astudillo would be a big mistake: It would mean missing his memorable mug, which strongly resembles a blend of Bartolo Colon and Edward G. Robinson. Twins reporter Brandon Warne, who was on hand for Astudillo’s debut, confirms that the rookie’s listed dimensions of 5-foot-9 and 225 pounds appear to be accurate. “It’s a really weird body shape for a pro athlete,” Warne says. For obvious reasons, “absolute unit” was the most frequent response to this tweet.
One pitch, one swing, one single. Welcome, my son. pic.twitter.com/kgqgF2KJgm— Ben Lindbergh (@BenLindbergh) June 30, 2018
Although I bestowed “son” status on Astudillo and took him in my January minor league free-agent draft—a normal, not at all deranged activity I engage in every year—I can’t claim sole custody. It takes a village to appreciate him properly. According to Venezuelan baseball writer and analyst Octavio Hernández, Astudillo is better known on Baseball Twitter than he is in Venezuela, where he plays in the winter for a franchise with a small fan base and hasn’t excelled until recently. But the pitchers who’ve faced him in his native country have learned to loathe the experience. “I know for a fact that people in the game know him as the biggest pain in the ass [at] the plate,” Hernández says.
Until this season, Astudillo was closer to a curiosity than a prospect. Although he consistently generated above-average slash lines, he was prone to double plays and showed little power; in 2016, BA relayed a scout’s jeering joke that Astudillo “could end up as a .280/.280/.280 big leaguer with a .280 BABIP.” After his time with the Phillies, he was signed by both the Braves and the Diamondbacks to minor league contracts, but the call didn’t come until Twins starter Félix Jorge pitched his way off the 40-man and utility man Taylor Motter—who hadn’t made it to Minnesota until mid-June himself—suffered a concussion and hit the seven-day DL. With first-string catcher Jason Castro already out for the year, Astudillo’s backstop experience and ability to play multiple positions earned him a major league look.
Although it took a confluence of injuries for an opportunity to present itself, Astudillo has also seemingly become a better player this year, adopting a more power-oriented approach and setting a single-season high of seven homers without compromising his contact skills. “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.”
Few aspects of Astudillo’s career are only somewhat surprising. Despite a physique that doesn’t scream “Put me at a premium position,” Astudillo has played every position at some point as a pro, and defensive stats paint him as a competent catcher. He even made one appearance as a pitcher in the Pacific Coast League last year, throwing two scoreless innings—naturally, without issuing a walk or recording a K. In his first weekend in the majors, Astudillo caught two flies in left and made a beauty of a barehanded play at third.
Perhaps most impressively, he also stood in center field for an inning, flanked by two players perhaps even worse suited for their respective positions.
Astudillo didn’t field a ball in center, but just by being there, he made history. 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’s body belies some speed—he’s stolen six bases this season, another new stateside high in a single season—but it seems safe to say that no team prior to the 2018 Twins has ever fielded two players with a wider disparity in defensive ability and strikeout rate at the same position in the same season than Astudillo and first-string center fielder Byron Buxton, who’s currently rehabbing in Triple-A.
Astudillo has made an impression on offense as well, smacking three more singles and—also more than somewhat surprising—a triple, his third three-bagger in a domestic league. He’s now 5-for-11 in the big leagues, without a walk or K.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has yet to concoct a time-saving, strikeout-suppressing measure more effective than promoting Astudillo, who’s single-handedly halting the K rate one at-bat at a time. Promoting more Astudillos may be baseball’s best hope. Good news on that front: Astudillo’s brother, Wilfred, and cousin Wilfran both play pro ball, too, although Wilfred sometimes strikes out.
If Willians were just any pace-accelerating, action-enabling anachronism ported to 2018 through a wormhole back to the deadball days, dayenu. That he also plays every position with a scout-confusing frame seems too good to be true. Astudillo is far from a lock to remain in Minnesota, but he already has a stranglehold on our hearts.
“Coaches try to change my approach,” Astudillo said upon making the majors. “It’s just who I am. I’m a free swinger.” Those coaches can stuff it. As Hernández says, “He is an anarchist of the present system: an anti–true outcome, K-[defying], chubby batter that consistently generates above-average offensive production. What’s not to love?”
Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.