On Friday night at Target Field, the first-place Minnesota Twins put on a promotion framed around a particular player. It wasn’t Byron Buxton, the tantalizing, ultra-toolsy former second overall pick with an intoxicating combo of power and speed. Nor was it Nelson Cruz, who leads the majors in homers since 2014, or ascendant staff ace José Berríos, or Max Kepler or Jorge Polanco, two homegrown hitters who signed five-year extensions in February. It was a 27-year-old rookie with 43 previous games of MLB experience, who was signed as a minor league free agent and never appeared higher than 28th on a team top prospect list by Baseball America, let alone a league-wide one. The event, “An Evening With La Tortuga,” was the latest improbable product of Willians Astudillo’s climb from curiosity to cult hero to mainstream star.
It would be one thing if Astudillo, the non-prospect turned Twins sensation, were only the hardest hitter to strike out in MLB history, relative to the league. Since his first call-up late last June, Astudillo has struck out or walked in fewer than 4.7 percent of his plate appearances. Over the same span, the league as a whole has struck out or walked more than 6.6 times as frequently. No hitter has accumulated Ks or walks as slowly, and even the next-most-contact-inclined player with as many trips to the plate, the Angels’ Andrelton Simmons, has struck out or walked almost 2.8 times as often. Astudillo’s prodigious capacity to put the ball in play, in an era when contact is scarce, made him a figure of fascination among a small group of baseball obsessives who marveled at his minor league stats during his nine-season ascent through four farm systems and heralded his arrival in Minnesota last summer.
But Astudillo awareness has since spread far beyond his billing as a statistical outlier. Although he’s fully lived up to his label as the king of contact—for now, he’s the only hitter with at least 150 plate appearances in the 100-season live-ball era to have more career homers than strikeouts—he’s famous for his anti-strikeout skills in the sense that Beyoncé is famous for singing “No, No, No.” That’s just how the story started. By baseball standards, Astudillo has gone viral several times since early last year: for his no-look throw to pick off a runner in 2018 spring training; for the hidden-ball trick he turned in Triple-A last August; for his helmet-losing, hair-flying, breath-sapping sprint from first to home in September; for face-planting while fielding a bunt; for pimping the heck out of a homer that won a playoff game in the Venezuelan Winter League; for holding onto the ball while being hurdled by Bryce Harper. After his first 18 major league games, MLB compiled a clips package of his “great moments” that ran 5:32. Amid all the highlights, he’s batted in every lineup slot and played every position except shortstop, pitcher included. And despite his skipper’s protestations, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him complete the positional cycle.
Over the weekend, the Twins added Astudillo to the 10-day injured list after he strained his left hamstring while tagging from third base and scoring (which may have made him more relatable). Even after he returns, his long-term promise as a player will remain a matter of some uncertainty. Both his big league performance to date (.345/.360/.521, 133 wRC+) and public projections paint him as potentially worth 3-4 wins over a full season, which would be impressive for a free-talent find who was repeatedly passed over but wouldn’t make him elite on its own. He isn’t even a staple of the Twins’ lineup, appearing in only 16 of the team’s first 24 games this season and starting only 12. Yet his stardom depends only in part on playing like an All-Star. Astudillo is beloved because he’s an antidote to every ill that’s perceived to plague baseball: a constant source of balls in play in an increasingly static sport; the owner of a 5-foot-9, 225-pound, mold-breaking body at a time when athletes are getting too tall and strong for fans to picture themselves fitting in on the field; a font of infectious emotion in a game that still suppresses and polices displays of emotion; and the rare object of widespread affection in a not-so-national pastime whose fans form bonds largely along regional lines.
So imagine being the beneficiary of this singular gift from the baseball gods, a folk hero who could have ended up anywhere but fell into the Twins’ laps. What’s a team to do when it unexpectedly stumbles upon one of the game’s most appealing players? Chris Iles, who heads the Twins’ marketing department as the team’s senior director of brand experience and innovation, appreciates the hand he’s been dealt. Astudillo’s rise to fame, Iles says, is “a marketer’s dream.” One of his tasks is to extend the Astudillo experience to as many people as possible. “I view it as us helping him build his personal brand, [which] in turn helps the Minnesota Twins build our brand,” Iles says. “It’s one hand washes the other.”
Astudillo first made a major impression on Iles after the outpouring of positivity that flowed from his gasping run around the bases on September 12, followed by his postgame pronouncement, “I just wanted to show that chubby people also run.” Astudillo’s dash, Iles says, “was just pure joy to watch. It was like almost watching a little kids’ game.” Leading both leagues with a small-sample .355 batting average in 2018 raised Astudillo’s profile, but, Iles says, “It’s really his personality that has driven the Astudillo fever. … The fun seems to find him.”
Like his approach at the plate, Astudillo’s path to popularity probably isn’t replicable and certainly isn’t something a team could draw up on its own. Rather than force-feeding Astudillo to their audience like a sports Poochie, the Twins have primarily piggybacked on an organically grown following—cautiously, at first. “Last year we were able to capitalize on it to some extent through social content and how we portrayed him on our team-owned social channels,” Iles says. “But I think there were serious question marks about whether he was going to make the team in 2019. And so we did so with kind of reserved enthusiasm and optimism.” The Twins would go on to have a fairly active offseason, which included almost total turnover on the coaching staff and the addition of another multi-position player in Marwin González. The more Minnesota built up Astudillo before this season, the more let down fans would have felt if he hadn’t broken camp with the club.
Lowest Career K% Relative to MLB (Min. 140 PA)
|Player||Debut Year||Career PA||K%+|
|Player||Debut Year||Career PA||K%+|
As soon as Astudillo arrived in spring training after a visa-related delay, he started setting concerns about his place on the roster to rest, and not just by batting .314 with zero strikeouts in 51 Grapefruit League at-bats. “Seeing the team’s reaction when he was able to get there and how drawn they were to him, I mean, it’s not only fans that are fascinated by this guy,” Iles says. That, Iles recalls, was when the Twins’ marketing team started brainstorming in earnest about ways to make the most of Astudillo’s time with the team in 2019.
Iles and Co. conceived of An Evening With La Tortuga—a ticket package combined with a T-shirt giveaway—during spring training, hoping that Astudillo would make the cut. When he did, the Twins ran potential T-shirt designs by him, including the winner, which features Astudillo mid-stride on the front, accompanied by the “chubby people” quote, along with his nickname, “La Tortuga,” his jersey number, and a turtle shell on the back. “I would consider the shirt that is a part of this ticket package to be among the riskier designs that we shared with him,” says Iles, who acknowledges the importance of not appearing to poke fun at Astudillo’s appearance. “And it was far and away his favorite, which we were glad to see.” From a financial perspective, the promotion’s success surpassed expectations. “We started out with a goal of selling 2,000 tickets … and we ended upping that to 3,000 and sold out,” Iles says, adding, “It’s our bestselling theme night that we have at this point.”
Iles tries to be conscious of clubhouse dynamics when planning promotions—in theory, a theme night for a newcomer like Astudillo could ruffle feathers among more senior players—but in this case, he says, “I have heard zero rumblings of any clubhouse jealousy because of the attention that he’s given.” Astudillo, Iles believes, is too beloved by his teammates (some of whom wear their own “La Tortuga” T-shirts) to provoke any ill will. When Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson launched a podcast this month, Astudillo was his inaugural guest.
Consequently, the Twins have continued to promote him, playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song and the “I like turtles” sound clip through the PA system during games, stationing Ninja Turtle in the Champions Club behind home plate, handing out turtle masks to fans in the same section, and tweeting away. “We’re just trying to pour gas on the fire,” Iles says. The Twins rank 22nd among teams in Twitter followers, with half the average reach of the other 29 club accounts, but @MLB has also sent many an Astudillo update to its audience of 8-plus million.
Iles, a Minnesota native who grew up rooting for the Twins and has worked for the club in various roles since 2008, struggles to summon examples of previous Twins who’ve vibed with fans in a similar way. The closest comps he comes up with are Eduardo Escobar and Kirby Puckett, although the latter’s legacy was tarnished by a series of post-career revelations about his behavior off the field. Given how infrequently a fan favorite like Astudillo comes along, Iles says, the marketing team is “mindful not to overexpose him,” but he also notes, “I don’t think we’re anywhere near that.”
Astudillo’s agent, Francis Marquez, is also exercising caution when it comes to his client’s sudden celebrity. Marquez has represented Astudillo for roughly six years, starting when Astudillo was a low-level minor leaguer in the Phillies’ system, so he knew him long before the breakout. “This isn’t a show that he’s putting on for the cameras,” Marquez says. Astudillo’s magnetism, the agent adds, is “coming out now because it’s under the bright lights of the major league stage, but it’s always been there.”
Neither Marquez nor Astudillo knows who coined “La Tortuga,” but like Iles, Marquez is eager to embrace it. Earlier this month, his agency fashioned an image of Astudillo in Ninja Turtle garb, which Astudillo posted on Instagram.
That concept came from Marquez, but Astudillo is an active participant in crafting his image. “He is definitely open to the whole marketing side,” Marquez says. “He is not shy whatsoever. He is very outgoing. He has really big personality. So he’s looking forward to showing people that.” It was Astudillo’s idea to publish an earlier post in which the man of many positions offered encouragement to others who, like him, have encountered criticism because of their body type. Marquez helped him translate the message, although he says one of Astudillo’s goals is to become comfortable enough with English to speak publicly in his second language.
View this post on Instagram
All my minor league career I heard I was not going to be a big leaguer because I did not "look" like one. I was too short. I was too stocky. I did not have the physical traits customary associated with a Major League player. Well here I am. So let that be a lesson to anyone reading this who has ever been told that their physical appearance limits their ability. It does not. And if anyone ever tries to come at you with that, just knock'em out of the way and stay focused on your goals and the path to get there. #latortuga // Toda mi carrera de liga menor escuché que no iba a jugar Grandes Ligas porque físicamente no "parecía" un jugador de ese nivel. "Era "muy bajito," o "muy gordito." No tenía los atributos físicos usualmente asociados con un jugador de Grandes Ligas. Pues aquí estoy. Y que esa sea una lección para todos ustedes que leen esto que alguna vez le han dicho que su apariencia física los limita. NO es así. Y si alguien le viene con eso, sáquelo del medio y siga enfocado en sus metas y el camino para alcanzarlas. #latortuga
The challenge for Marquez—who also represents Astudillo’s younger brother Wilfred, a Mets minor leaguer—is ensuring that Willians picks the right offers from the many flooding in. Astudillo signed equipment deals with New Balance and Franklin Sports this year, and Marquez says he’ll have a “relatively big” announcement about an endorsement deal in the coming weeks. He’s also worked with the Twins to coordinate Astudillo’s participation in community outreach events, including a recent RBI program glove giveaway. “You want to make sure that you’re protecting what the player’s brand is and what it will be, because you’re really in the formational stages of it,” Marquez says. “Which is exciting, but at the same time you want to make sure that you don’t succumb to the temptation of everyone pulling at you. Sometimes it’s better to have the one or two big opportunities instead of the 20 smaller ones.”
Astudillo didn’t start the Twins’ game on Friday, much to the dismay of the fans who’d turned out to claim their “La Tortuga” T-shirts. One of those spectators, Matt Ely from Des Moines, was thrilled that a family event brought him to town at the right time to attend Astudillo’s day. “I’m not a Twins fan, but I’ll root for any team Astudillo is on,” Ely says. Ely and the other Astudillo devotees went home happy: Their idol pinch hit to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning and, after going down 0-2, recovered to smack a single. “When he finally got his hit, our whole section jumped to its feet screaming,” Ely says. “It’s strange to think how fast he went from little-known statistical outlier to having thousands of people shouting ‘La Tortuga’ over a single up the middle.”
View this post on Instagram
Seriously, you all have no idea how much it means to me, someone who had to fight to get here, to hear this. Thank you. Sincerely, thank you. // En serio que ustedes no saben cuánto significa para mi, que tanto tuve que luchar para llegar aquí, escuchar esto. Gracias. De corazón, gracias. #latortuga
These are heady days for a player who was far from a lock to make the majors a year ago, and who’s barely a month removed from officially making the 2019 team. “The good thing about Willians is that he’s being careful that the moment doesn’t take him on a ride that he doesn’t want to be on,” Marquez says. “He wants to savor his opportunity, because he understands that it could be gone with a snap of a finger.” But baseball is better off with Willians than it was without him. “We haven’t seen that level of personality in a player in quite a while,” Iles says. “I think that’s something that the game at the major league level is missing and could seriously benefit from. And I think right now he’s kind of the face of that movement.”