By Louis Addeo-Weiss
One formality concerning the active divisional races should be that of the American League Central. With the Minnesota Twins, who sit at 87-54 with a smidge more than three weeks to go in the 2019 season, holding a 5.5 game lead over the three-time reigning divisional champions the Cleveland Indians, many expect this Twins team to walk away as the 2019 Central Division champions. This sentiment is echoed by baseball-reference’s forecast of 99.4% chance of making the postseason as of September 7th.
The Twins’ success in 2019 can best be personified by the juiced baseball and the bevy of players who have benefited from it.
The club’s 272 home runs are a new record for the most hit by one team in a single season, and given they have 22 games left after Friday’s matchup against the aforementioned Indians, many expect them to eclipse the 300 mark.
For some context on how historic this is, during the entirety of the 1902 season, the second of what many deem baseball’s modern era, the entire league hit 354 home runs; to even approach that total as one team only exacerbates the perceived absurdity of this.
With all of the home runs present in today’s game, the long balls are accompanied by strikeouts, and they too, are more alive than ever, with 2019 expected to shatter records as the Twins have.
As of September 7th, there have been 37,005 strikeouts, on pace for the third most in a single season, with 2018 (41,207) and 2017 (40,104), ranking ahead of the current 2019 totals.
But in this era of abbreviated starting pitching roles, openers, high velocity, launch angle, and the three-true-outcomes players, lies one man, who, in many ways, mirrors Wee Willie Keeler, and in others, Bartolo Colon.
Meet Willians Astudillo and learn why he is easily the most interesting man in baseball today.
As we’ve noted, strikeouts and home runs are dime-a-dozen, but for Astudillo, this notion is one he fails to abide to.
Through his first 249 plate appearances, spread across 70 games, Astudillo has struck out a mere 9 times.
According to the baseball-reference play index, that total ranks as the lowest lowest for any player through his first 249 plate appearances.
Those 9 strikeouts through Astudillo’s first 249 plate appearances make for an atomesque 3.6% strikeout rate, not far off from his 3.2% clip he posted across his career in the minor leagues, striking out just 83 times over 2,563 plate appearances.
How much of an anomaly does this make Astudillo?
For this, we must take a look at the 2019 average strikeout-rate.
Across all thirty major league teams and the 37,005 strikeouts they’ve compiled, each team has averaged a collective 1,234 lonesome trips to the dugout across an average of 5,419 plate appearances. This gives us an average strikeout-rate of 22.8 percent, light years away from the brand of baseball Astudillo plays.
Speaking of measures of time, it seems the offensive game Astudillo plays greatly mirrors the days of Wee Willie Keeler and the proceeding Joe Sewell.
Sewell, who played from 1920-33, remains the most extreme example of a hitter who avoided the swing-and-miss, with just 108 strikeouts across 14 seasons and 8,333 plate appearances, good enough for a 1.3% strikeout-rate, far-and-away the best mark in baseball history.
Sewell’s lack of power (49 career home runs, 108 OPS+) was made up for with his bat-to-ball expertise, retiring a career .312 hitter en-route to induction into Cooperstown in 1977.
Keeler, the hitter with the second-lowest strikeout-rate of 1.4%, was, in many ways, closer to Astudillo than the aforementioned Sewell.
Retiring a career .341 hitter, tied with Bill Terry and Pete Browning for 9th all-time, Keeler, who, like Sewell, lacked the ability to hit for power, as noted by just 33 career home runs, used an aggressive approach at the plate, never walking more than 43 times in a single season.
In the time of three-true-outcomes, where most hitters either walk, hit a home run, or strikeout, Astudillo hardly does either.
It has already been noted how infrequently he strikes out, but even more astounding is his sheer stubbornness when it comes to taking walks.
Astudillo’s 4 walks across his first 249 plate appearances are the least for any player through said amount of plate appearances to begin a career.
One note when discussing today’s era of major leaguers is their physicality. Players today, with the advances in nutrition, medicine, and training programs, are stronger and more physically gifted today than in any generation prior.
According to a 2018 piece posted on Fanatics, the most recent of which to study, in-depth, the average height of professional players, results came back showing the average height of a major league player in this era clocks in at 6’2 and 207 pounds, which, in most cases, posits an athletic build.
What does this have to do Astudillo?
We’ll use the below image of him racing home to better help answer this quandary.
As confirmed by baseball-reference and MLB.com, Astudillo is listed at 5’9 and 225 pounds, far from what most would deem an athletic build.
Using a devised metric of gauging player build, using the listed average height, 6’2 (74 inches), and the average weight, 207 pounds, we see that per inch of height, the average player disperses 2.8 pounds per inch of height. In regards to this method, players who exceed this average would be considered of below-average athletic builds.
The most extreme case we’ve seen within the past twenty-years is the well-traveled Bartolo Colon, whose 5’11, 285 pound physique presents an average height dispersal of 4.01 pounds per inch.
Or, for a slightly more extreme case, see one-time Orioles first basemen Walter Young
In Astudillo’s case, while he may compare as favorably in that regard to Colon, his 3.26 pounds per inch still has him as the current and future outlier among a sport that features the giraffe-esque majesticness of an Aaron Judge, or the stocky-but-strong Mike Trout, or even the mice-like Jose Altuve.
And for someone of Astudillo’s build, scouts would merely relegate him to a small handful of positions such as catcher, first base, or designated hitter duties, but as has already been suggested, Astudillo is an outlier.
Though he did debut as a catcher in 2018, Astudillo has made starts at first base, second base, third base, left and right field, while appearing in center field, and pitcher.
Yes, Astudillo, baseball’s physical insurgent, has manned the hot corner, second base, and the defensive powerhouse that is center field in actual major league contests.
Should baseball’s obsession with launch angle continue, so, too, are the influx of strikeouts, but as long as he remains in the league, the groans associated with seeing hitters strike out 200 times in a season will be temporarily silenced when Willians Astudillo steps into the batters box.
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