The UK’s favourite book is Harry Potter. Our favourite bird is the robin. A Brit’s favourite car colour is grey. The country’s favourite cocktail is a pornstar martini, and Helvellyn via Striding Edge is Britain’s favourite walk.
As yet, the UK does not have a favourite MLB player, so I propose Willians Astudillo.
Short, stocky with windswept hair, the Minnesota Twins catcher looks an unlikely Major League baseball star, yet is the most compelling player to have hit “The Show” for years.
Born in Venezuela, Astudillo spent his late teens in the Phillies organisation, graduating to A-ball as a 22-year-old where he hit .333 AVG with 20 strikeouts and 19 walks. That season represents a career-high in strikeouts for the player nicknamed “El Tortuga” (the tortoise/slowcoach). Never again would he strikeout 20 times in a season.
Teams couldn’t see beyond his unconventional appearance, and he bounced from the Mississippi Braves (Atlanta’s Double-A affiliate) in 2016 to the Reno Aces (Arizona’s Triple-A affiliate) in 2017.
Carson Cistulli wrote an article for Fangraphs in 2017 trying to find the next Matt Carpenter (a player with a high contact rate, low ground ball rate and low strikeout rate). The article focused on soon-to-be Phillies’ first baseman Rhys Hoskins but also drew comparisons with Astudillo.
Cistulli’s analysis was spot on with Hoskins, who had a sensational debut stretch of 18 home runs in 50 games with 1.104 OPS. In contrast, Astudillo was let go by the Diamondbacks.
Thankfully for all of us, he signed for his fourth organisation, the Minnesota Twins, in November 2017 and promptly went off to play in the Venezuelan Winter League. In 55 games, the catcher hit six home runs with .319 AVG, striking out just four times in 204 at-bats.
Avoiding strikeouts had become his calling card. In his first eight years, he had struck out just 78 times. It only takes Aaron Judge a couple of months to accumulate that number.
The legend of Willians Astudillo started to grow.
Twins’ third baseman Miguel Sano “playfully” drew comparisons between Astudillo and obese veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon. Although at 5-foot-9 (1.75M) and tipping the scales at over 16st (102 kgs), Astudillo looks like no other baseball player … ever.
Despite being the butt of social media memes, Astudillo quickly showed that to underestimate him was foolish. He embarrassed Yankees’ Shane Robinson with an exceptional pickoff at first base, which is even more impressive when you realise that it was a no-look throw. NBA stars were probably nodding with approval (ed – And Patrick Mahomes).
Astudillo began the regular season at Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, but even though
starting catcher Jason Castro tore his meniscus in May and was out for the season, there was no call for the Venezuelan.
Later that month, Fangraphs published their list of Twins’ Top-30 prospects. Astudillo was absent, although there was a post-script with a paragraph calling him Cistulli’s guy.
In June, he finally got his first taste of Major League action. His promotion was greeted with fascination:
“The weirdest player in the minors is now in the majors. Why has it taken until now? Statistically, he’s done just about everything right … but the problem is that he looks funny.Jeff Sullivan
In his debut, he went 1-for-2 against the Cubs with (unsurprisingly) no strikeouts.
His big league stint was short-lived, just 19 at-bats (and one strikeout), but before he returned to Rochester, he tied the record as the shortest player in the majors to pitch an inning in 2018, when he took the ball during a blowout against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Back in Triple-A, he was immediately back in the sports headlines.
Toledo Mud Hens’ Dawel Lugo had moved up to third base on a flyball. When the ball was fed back into the infield, Astudillo, the third baseman, kept it in his glove. As the pitcher assumed his position on the mound, Lugo took a lead from third and Astudillo applied the tag. Perfect execution of the hidden ball trick.
Astudillo returned to the majors at the end of August and became the player you could not take your eyes off.
At third base, he was dynamic, sprinting to barehand the ball and fire to first.
Behind the plate, he reacted with lightning speed to a corral a bunt and get the out at third base … the bellyflop and face plant ensured he featured in that evening’s sports reports.
At 5-foot-9 and 16st, Astudillo became the first player with his physique to play centre field in the majors.
And on the base paths, he hustled for doubles and sprinted from second to score, capturing attention with his declaration of “I just wanted to show that chubby people also run.”
But he was far from a non-striking out freakshow, Astudillo demonstrated serious power, as shown three homers in a five-game stretch, including a walk-off home run against the Royals.
Whether he makes the Twins Opening Day roster remains to be seen. Jason Castro and Mitch Garver are likely to be the first and second choice catchers.
Instead of waiting for Spring Training to stake his claim, Astudillo took apart the Venezuelan Winter League, hitting .325 with 10 home runs (second highest in the league) and just four strikeouts in 234 at-bats. He finished second in MVP voting.
The highlight was his clutch homer, after which he broke every unwritten rule. He was plunked in the next game, but it was probably worth it.
In over 3,000 plate appearances across all levels over the span of nine years, Astudillo has only struck out 99 times. That is an extraordinary 3% strikeout rate; the MLB average is over 22%.
2019 will be his 10th year as a professional. We know we will witness Astudillo’s 100th career strikeout, but who knows what else Britain’s favourite MLB player will have in store for us.