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Choose your 2019 backup catcher

Initially, it seemed that Jason Castro would be backed up by Mitch Garver, but Willians Astudillo has forced his way into the picture.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I think a shrug of the shoulders is what probably gave Willians Astudillo his first opportunity in the major leagues. Following a crash into the outfield fence and subsequent concussion, the placement of super-utility Taylor Motter on the 7-day disabled list opened up a roster spot for a new position player. With no other outstanding options, it was as if the Twins just said, “Why not?” and called up the catcher/third baseman/left fielder.

There was no ignoring Astudillo’s success at the plate in spite of his unique approach. With a career minor league batting average above .300 and OPS over .750, he would have been a shoo-in for a promotion as a catcher. The thing is, he never walked. His walk rate of 3.5% has been done before, usually by hyper-aggressive batters that always looked to put the ball in play. However, he didn’t strike out, either. Just 3.3% of the time, Astudillo walked back to the dugout as a strikeout victim. A player could do that in a week, but with the major league average around 21% this year, whiffing as little as Astudillo shouldn’t have been humanly possible.

The high-contact attack was intriguing but so unusual that it was understandable if teams were scared off. If his odd offensive approach might be his first strike (pun not intended), his second was that Astudillo could be best described as, uh, “portly.” Billy Beane said in “Moneyball” about fellow catcher Jeremy Brown that we’re not selling jeans here, bristling that ballplayers had to have a certain appearance, but it’s remained a fact that organizations typically go after the projectable, athletic build. Regarding Astudillo, the only way we’d project his body was to see how far he could make it on the Bartolo Colon Lookalike Scale.

Along with possibly discovering just how round could be too round for baseball, there likely was the fear that Astudillo wouldn’t be able to man a position much longer. While he was typically a catcher, he also was seeing time at 3rd base and left field as teams sought to make him more versatile. With a sprint speed of 24.7 ft/sec (major league average is around 27 ft/sec), he wasn’t going to cut it in left field for very long. Leaving 3rd base and catcher, it didn’t seem likely that a short, hefty guy could stick at the hot corner, so that left him stuck behind the plate.

Nevertheless, the Twins did give him a shot around the field at the beginning. His major league debut put him in left field and eventually center field as his teammates dropped like flies under the Chicago sun. His next seven appearances occurred just about everywhere expect as a catcher, partially due to the presence of Mitch Garver and Bobby Wilson but also potentially because the Twins didn’t trust Astudillo as the receiving end of the battery. By the time he was sent back to the minors at the end of the All-Star break, he was hitting .263/.263/.368 over 19 plate appearances with no walks, one strikeout, and donning a glove at five different positions and as a designated hitter. Overall, not special but not an embarrassment, either.

With injury comes opportunity and Astudillo found himself back in the majors in late August after Wilson suffered a sprained ankle. This time, he was allowed to catch and coincidentally his bat heated up. Over 54 plate appearances, Astudillo has raked a .365/.389/.577 line while playing 13 of 16 games as a catcher. Another coincidence is that his playing time lately has been caused by another concussion, this time to Opening Day backup catcher Garver.

For some reason, there is a belief in Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense. Essentially, a catcher’s defensive ability is supposedly inversely proportional to his offensive ability. A quick example would be the past catching tandem of Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli as part of the Angels organization. Napoli was clearly the superior bat, while Mathis earned a reputation as being better with the glove. Or, perhaps you’d prefer some Twins examples, such as Drew Butera and Ryan Doumit. With Astudillo succeeding with the stick, this theory suggests then that he shouldn’t be much of a defender. I’d assume the Twins organization doesn’t subscribe to Nichols’ Law, but now that he’s in the majors, we actually have some data to measure his defense. If you prefer numbers, Astudillo has thrown out 3 of 7 basestealers (42.9%, major league average: 28.2%) and has allowed no passed balls and just 4 wild pitches in 109 innings, which is in line for the average catcher this season (about 1 passed ball and 4.2 wild pitches per 100 innings). When it comes to catcher framing, he’s 38th out of 115 catchers in called strikes above average.

If numbers aren’t your thing, we can use the eye test as well. He pounced on this bunt attempt and made the out at third before faceplanting into the ground. We’ve seen his no-look pickoff before, which admittedly is more gimmicky than anything. However, he has looked like a major-league caliber catcher thus far and I think it’s safe to say that barring injury, Astudillo should see himself in the major leagues at some point next season.

All this becomes interesting because at the beginning of the season, it seemed obvious that Castro and Garver would enter 2019 as the two catchers atop the depth chart. But, now Astudillo has announced his presence and I don’t know if it’s a given that Castro and Garver are the top two catchers in the organization. Castro has one more year on his free agent contract so he might still be a Twin next season, but Garver has a few more questions surrounding him. The bat hasn’t been his problem but rather his defense, as he’s thrown out just 18.8% of basestealers, averages about 1.4 passed balls and 4.86 wild pitches allowed per 100 defensive innings, and has been 101st out of 115 catchers in called strikes above average. Garver’s appeal was his bat as a catcher, yet Astudillo has been the better hitter despite being allergic to walks, and suddenly it seems that Astudillo should be the backup catcher in 2019, with the potential of even being a starting catcher in the near future.

However, this is not how baseball works as contracts, options, and roster flexibility all come into play. I’m assuming that the Twins will enter the 2019 season with Castro and Garver on the active roster while optioning Astudillo to the minors as depth and the first replacement should Castro or Garver get hurt since he’ll have more minor league options than the other two. Even with offensive regression, Astudillo has looked to be an equal or superior hitter than Garver and thus far has been a better defender, so I feel that he has a good argument for starting the 2019 season on the active roster. Hell, the Twins could even do Ron Gardenhire’s favorite roster trick and carry three catchers anyway, especially while nodding at Astudillo’s ability to play 3rd base and left field. Regardless of the outcome, the organization will have some thinking to do this offseason about their plans behind the plate for the upcoming year.