Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Water on La Tortuga

If you’ve followed me for any amount of time on Twitter, you know that I’m skeptical when it comes to the Minnesota Twins cult hero. Willians Astudillo made his MLB debut last season, and after a September explosion, fans around Twins Territory lost their collective minds. Both from a conceptual and statistical perspective he’s been a lightning rod player for me, and someone I’ve struggled to get on board with.

Rather than tweeting in short bursts I thought it pertinent to organize my thoughts in a single blog post with supporting facts and use this as a point of reference. Maybe some number of months from now this will be something that you can point to as a massive miss for me. If that ends up being the case, Minnesota likely benefits, so we all win in that case.

To date Astudillo has 62 games in his major league career. 29 of those games came during September 2018 in which he posted an .887 OPS. He swatted eight extra-base hits (three homers), .379 wOBA and 139 wRC+.  On top of his offensive contributions, he also played six defensive positions for Minnesota. The next 33 games came to open the 2019 season, in which he posted a .630 OPS, .267 wOBA, and a 62 wRC+.

As Twins Daily’s Nick Nelson alluded to me on Twitter, we’re dealing with two sample sizes spanning roughly 100 plate appearances. Generating definitive conclusions off either scenario is not entirely fair, but I’m attempting to tie feelings into statistical output. Without being completely dismissive of those 97 September plate appearances, they took place during the most watered-down portion of the big-league schedule. His slump or injury has been credited with the slide in 2019, but the reality is that aside from his first three games (6-for-9), he owns a .537 OPS across 110 plate appearances.

My belief is that Astudillo must entirely shift his approach at the plate in order to see sustained big-league success. Astudillo saw 2.93 P/PA this season, the lowest in baseball, with the next closest being the Angels Andrelton Simmons (3.03). It’s not that swinging early and often isn’t a viable process, it’s the way in which Astudillo uses it that’s the problem.

Minnesota’s utility man owned just a 28.8% hard hit rate this season (31.9% in 2018) and puts the ball on the ground 40% of the time. He also popped up on one-fifth of his batted balls. With as much swinging as Astudillo does, while avoiding strikeouts and walks, it’s not a surprise he has a 95% contact rate. Unfortunately, he also has chased 47% of the time (40% in 2018). The summary of his plate discipline and approach is a guy who doesn’t hit the ball hard, puts it on the ground, and isn’t fast enough to make a difference.

If there’s going to be a successful career ahead with the Twins or elsewhere, something must give for Astudillo. He’s done this swing early, avoid strikeouts, and don’t walk for the entirety of his pro career. A pop-up season in the PCL saw a strong OPS, but his minor league OPS is .759. There’s some pop in the bat, but he doesn’t work counts enough to find good pitches. Major league hurlers make him eat out of their hand, and he obliges regularly. This profile is the exact representation of why strikeouts aren’t bad and are arguably worse than any other out.

I touched on a guy who isn’t patient earlier. The Angels Simba swings often too, but he’s become a strong hitter (for average) with a hard-hit rate in the upper 30’s. The ground ball rate isn’t good (and it’s why his SLG will never be favorable), but he only chases pitches out of the zone roughly 30% of the time. Not a slugger by any means, Simmons finds a strike and attacks it while Astudillo attacks almost any pitch thrown his way.

The greatest asset Astudillo provided Minnesota in the early going this year was that he had positional flexibility. He’s able to stand almost anywhere on the diamond but grades out as roughly average at all those places. Lacking a standout defensive skill, and currently employing an approach not conducive to big league success, there’s an uphill battle ahead of him.

It’s great when players like this excite a fanbase or represent a polarizing figure in the clubhouse. What’s worth keeping in perspective, however, is that there’s still a game being played between the lines and casting aside reality, or the merits of other players is something that will only make the letdown that much more difficult. Here’s to hoping an overhaul can be made during his stint on the farm. The more contributors Rocco Baldelli has, the better.

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