We simply lack appropriate adjectives to capture the majesty of Willians Astudillo.
Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. We have plenty of descriptive words for him, such as phenomenal, extraordinary, magnificent, and marvelous. It’s not fair to declare Chris Davis the worst player in baseball so early in the season, but suffice it to say there are lots of adjectives to describe his end of the performance spectrum too.
Astudillo is entirely unique. While the rest of the baseball world walks or strikes out about 1⁄3 of the time, the Minnesota Twins utility catcher puts the ball in play almost every plate appearance. Furthermore, he does so with an infectious exuberance and dramatic panache. He’s a backstop who moonlights at nearly every other position, despite a physique and smile that remind you of that big, goofy kid in your sixth grade class who hasn’t adjusted to his body yet.
The best adjectives for Astudillo really describe what he isn’t. He’s inexplicable, inimitable, and incredible, but perhaps most of all incomparable.
No one expects him to continue such a torrid beginning to his major league career for much longer. By all our collective baseball knowledge, his slash line .374/.395/.570 and .353 BABIP through 114 plate appearances is unsustainable. That is to say, no one has ever done it before, much less a 5’9, 225 lb. defensively flexible catcher, who was allowed to walk away from three organizations as a minor league free agent.
No, it’s just impossible that someone THIS indescribable is also THIS good... except maybe he is! It’s way too early in his career to make any firm conclusions, but the possibility must remain that we’re witnessing his true talent level.
If so, we need to establish a schema to categorize his splendor. Clearly, there’s never been a player quite like him. His closest player comps according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA are José Morales, Tomás Telis, and Steve Clevinger. He’ll likely regress to something close to these mostly forgotten backup catchers. However, we have to prepare for the exceptional.
What players from history most closely resemble the best attributes of Astudillo?
Strikeout Rate: Tris Speaker (but really Joe Sewell)
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Astudillo’s game is his immunity to strikeouts. Through 114 plate appearances, he has just three of them (2.6 percent)! For frame of reference, there have already been 119 three-strikeout games by 99 individual batters in 2019. Brandon Nimmo has three hat tricks and a golden sombrero.
Our protagonist's extremely low strikeout rate is rarer than ever in present times. We need to hearken back about 100 years ago to find a reasonable comparison. Tris Speaker whiffed 393 times in a career spanning 12,011 plate appearances— a 2.4 percent strikeout rate. He fanned 15 times or less in each of his final 12 seasons.
However, Speaker played during the Deadball Era. The league-wide strikeout rate was just 7.8 percent in 1918, whereas it reached 22.3 percent 100 years later. Relative to the times, Joe Sewell is a more apt comparison. A shortstop and third baseman for Cleveland and the Yankees, he whiffed just three or four times in five full seasons. His career 1.4 percent strikeout rate is almost twice as good as Astudillo’s, but fits better when adjusted for the league.
Walk Rate: George Sisler
Perhaps Astudillo’s walk rate of 2.6 percent— which matches his strikeouts— is just as remarkable. While walks are a positive outcome, this underscores his phenomenal talent for putting the ball in play.
Frankly, there are no good hitters with a walk rate as low as Astudillo’s throughout history, yet he remains one all the same. This is probably because as batters display sustained proficiency, pitchers tend to walk them more.
Such is the case with George Sisler. His walk rate was merely 2.4 percent in 1915— his rookie season. It ticked upwards from there, as one would expect of a batter who’s average surpassed .400 twice, but his career walk rate was just 5.2 percent. If Astudillo is really as special as he looks thus far (the entire premise of this article), we can expect a little more caution from opposing pitchers.
On Base/Slugging: Johnny Mize and Joe DiMaggio
Given the established minuscule strikeout and walk numbers, Astudillo’s .395 on base percentage and .570 slugging percentage are astounding. We’ve come to expect that walks and strikeouts are part and parcel with these stats.
No qualified batter in history matches both of these categories exactly. Johnny Mize comes closest with a .397 on base percentage (70th all time) and .562 slugging percentage (14th all time). Joe DiMaggio is scantly ahead of him with .398 (63rd all time) and .579 (ninth all time). Given Joltin’ Joe’s aversion to strikeouts (just 369 in his career), he might be the better model.
For the record, Aaron Judge has career numbers of .398 and .561. He resides in Astudillo territory as well.
Batting Average and wRC+: Ty Cobb
Certain records are sacred in baseball lore. Cy Young’s 511 wins, DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, and Pete Rose’s 4,256 hits, for example. Ty Cobb’s career .366 batting average is surely another— or at least it used to be!
Highest AVG in MLB history (min. 100 PA):— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) April 3, 2019
.382 Willians Astudillo
.366 Ty Cobb
As of this writing, Astudillo’s career mark is .374, comfortable clear of Cobb’s former record. However, they’re also a near match by more advanced measures. Astudillo’s 163 wRC+ is just two points behind Cobb’s 165, the eighth best in history.
Defense: Roger Bresnahan and Deacon White
In his young career, Astudillo has seen action at every position except shortstop and right field (he even pitched!). Several players have lined up at every position in their careers, often as a publicity stunt, but usually they’re primarily middle infielders. Our subject’s main positions are catcher and third base.
This is more special than many people realize. Only two players in history who were primarily catchers or third baseman also have experience at every other spot, including pitcher. They are Roger Bresnahan and Deacon White. The former’s career spanned 1897-1915, while the latter played from 1871-1890. In this sense, there hasn’t been anyone like Astudillo in more than a century.
All eight of the aforementioned players are Hall of Famers (excluding Judge, of course). Likening a player with 114 plate appearances to baseball’s elite is downright absurd. He’s much more likely to end up like Morales, Telis, or Clevinger.
Every once in a while, the absurd becomes reality. There’s no explanation for what Astudillo has done so far. We can’t reasonably expect him to maintain these levels, but even if he never plays another game, he’s already performed in a way that defies comparison or description. If he keeps this up any longer, we’ll need to invent some new adjectives.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983