This is another in the “Grading the 2019 Twins” series. If this is your first time venturing beyond the home page into this series, then you’re probably reading this introductory paragraph. Hi! I hope your day’s going well! In these articles, the author discusses a player’s 2019 season and hands out a letter grade, then everyone else votes in the poll at the end and chats about it in the comments. Previous entries to the series can be found in the links below.
Willians Astudillo may have been a backup part-time player in 2018, but that year, his first with the Minnesota Twins, he became a legend.
After his spring training no-look pickoff of Shane Robinson, people started noticing the squat catcher who seemed to make contact with any pitched ball. When the Twins called him up, he became one of the most fun players in the game, making his major league debut in center field and playing all over the diamond... while still getting his bat on everything.
Astudillo — now widely known as La Tortuga — became a sensation. Writers penned articles analyzing his anti-three-true-outcomes hitting. MLB released an Astudillo highlight video at the end of the season. Before the 2019 season, Jeff Sullivan, a FanGraphs senior writer who would shortly accept a job with the Tampa Bay Rays, called Astudillo an MVP candidate.
All of this set incredibly high — perhaps unreasonably high — expectations for Astudillo entering 2019.
And at first, it looked as though they would be met.
In the initial month of the season, Astudillo kept hitting the way he’d hit in his 29 games the previous year. Through April 27, Astudillo had played in 16 games, hitting .327/.340/.531 with just one walk and strikeout apiece, appearing at five defensive positions (catcher, corner infield, corner outfield), and remaining one of the most adored Twins. On April 26, the team held “An Evening with La Tortuga,” where fans who purchased a special package received a special Tortuga T-shirt and a game ticket; the package sold out, and Astudillo hit a pinch-hit single in his sole at-bat that night.
But on April 27, Astudillo strained his hamstring. He was placed on the Injured List the next day.
After his May 12 return, his stats began to drop, and they never would recover.
Through the end of June, Astudillo had played in 23 more games, but his slash line had tumbled to .263/.282/.383 with two walks and five strikeouts, he had struck just four additional extra-base hits (three doubles and a bomba) after hitting six (four doubles, two bombas) in March and April, and though he had added a sixth position (second base) to his seasonal repertoire, Twins fans were excited about a new hit-everything position-versatile rookie named Luis Arraez.
The second section of Astudillo’s 2019 season, like the first, would conclude with a trip to the injured list. On June 26, Astudillo strained his oblique making a leaping catch against the Target Field stands, and this injury would keep him out until the last month of the season.
La Tortuga returned to the Twins dugout and lineup with September’s call ups, but the third half of his season resembled more his second than his first. Though not devoid of Tortuga-esque moments, such as his pinch-hit, bases-loaded, two-out, two-strike single to provide the winning run against Boston on September 5 (the Eddie Rosario throw-out-at-home game), Astudillo’s 2019 season ended with a .268/.299/.379 slash line and an omission from the ALDS roster. His 51 hits included just 13 for extra bases — nine doubles, four bombas — and he walked just five times (2.5 percent walk rate) and struck out eight (3.9 percent K rate).
Many of his stats can tell the story simply in comparison to other Twins. Of the 15 Twins who appeared at home plate at least 200 times in 2019, Astudillo ranked last in:
- on-base percentage (.299)
- slugging percentage (.379)
- home runs (4, tied with Arraez)
- hits (51, tied with Jake Cave)
- runs scored (28, tied with Cave)
- runs batted in (21)
- wOBA (.288)
- wRC+ (76)
- hard contact rate (30.1 percent)
- bWAR (-0.2)
- fWAR (-0.2)
..and of course walks (5), walk rate (2.5 percent), strikeouts (8), and strikeout rate (3.9 percent).
One advanced stat on that list appears to explain a large part of Astudillo’s drop in play, though lingering injury could also have played a part. In 2018, Astudillo made hard contact 31.9 percent of the time and soft contact only 14.3 percent. One season later, though his hard contact remained at a comparable level (30.1 percent), his soft contact rose to 22.6 percent, second-worst among the above set of Twins to Jonathan Schoop’s 23.6 percent.
The cause of this can be attributed to his swing-at-everything at-bat approach, as from May onward, pitchers threw him plenty of junk that Astudillo would swing at but be unable to hit solidly, resulting in popouts or soft grounders. This can be contrasted with Arraez, who similarly did not walk (36 times, 9.8 percent walk rate) or strike out (29 times, 7.9 percent K rate) often, but showed much more plate discipline Astudillo and thus hit the ball solidly more often (34.7 percent hard contact, 12.3 percent soft).
Does this mean we love La Tortuga less? I hope not. Astudillo is still a versatile athlete with a good chance to become the Twins’ backup catcher in 2020, as Mitch Garver has established himself as the starter and Jason Castro is a free agent. And the man is still a joy to watch on the field: I wear my Twins No. 64 jersey proudly and still will no matter how Astudillo plays going forward. It’s the moments like that September 5 game in Boston — which I attended, sitting in right field, wearing the aforementioned No. 64 jersey — that remind us how much fun it is to watch La Tortuga play, and how much fun a sport baseball is.
Overall Grade: one turtle emoji
(Actual overall grade: C-)
What grade would you give Willians Astudillo’s 2019 season?
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