No one can deny that Willians Astudillo made a big time impression with the Twins in 2018 despite accruing just 93 at-bats. Astudillo slashed .355/.371.516 with a wOBA of .379 (between excellent and great on FanGraphs’ scale) and a wrc+ of 139 last year in 27 games. Obviously this level of success is not likely sustainable over a full or even half of a season of Major League Baseball, but could Astudillo still be a better option than Jason Castro or Mitch Garver as the Twins’ starting backstop?
The case for Willians
While 93 at-bats is hardly a reliable sample size, taking a look back at Astudillo’s minor league years can help us shed some more light on his potential productivity. Signed by the Phillies way back in December of 2008, Astudillo has spent quite a few years in the minors. However, La Tortuga has been productive at nearly every level, producing a wRC+ of 117 or above in all but two of his nine minor league season. Looking at his most recent minor league stops, Astudillo has shown that his success may be repeatable. In 128 at-bats with the Diamondbacks’ AAA team in 2017, Astudillo slashed .342/.370/.558 with a wRC+ of 138. At Rochester for the Twins organization in 2018, La Tortuga delivered a line of .276/.314/.469 in 307 at-bats before becoming an instant legend at the big league level.
The lore of Astudillo’s ability to avoid strikeouts (and walks) dates back to his days as a teenager, as La Tortuga has never posted a strikeout rate above 5% in his nine seasons in the minors. According to Baseball Savant, Astudillo’s zone contact rate at the big league level was 95.3%, twelve percent above the league average. And although Astudillo had a chase rate that was 10% above the league average, his contact rate on those pitches was an astounding 81.7%, over 20% higher than the MLB average. Astudillo’s whiff rate of 9.5% was also significantly lower than the MLB average of 24.0%.
Taking a deeper dive into the Statcast data, we can see how lucky Astudillo was based on the exit velocity and launch angle of his balls put in play. His xwOBA of .353 (a prediction of his wOBA based on his exit velo and launch angle) wasn’t far off of his actual wOBA of .379. This indicates that while Astudillo may have gotten a bit lucky in 2018, if he produced the same hit types again he would still be significantly above average hitter. When breaking it down by pitch, Astudillo was even a tad unlucky when facing fastballs according to Statcast data. The super utility man/catcher/absolute unit slugged .533 against heaters in 2018, while his xwOBA against the fastball was actual a few ticks higher at .538.
Another metric to measure the validity of Astudillo’s hitting prowess is BABIP, which also indicates that the Venezuelan native’s success at the plate could be sustainable. Willians had a BABIP of .341 in his time with the Twins, much higher than the league average of .300. However, a better way of evaluating BABIP is comparing the statistic to the player’s past seasons. Over nine minor league season, Astudillo posted a BABIP of .312 of above in six seasons, indicating that he likely should expect a BABIP somewhere in between the league average of .300 and his 2018 MLB mark of .341. This, along with his BABIP of .255 in the AAA Rochester, indicates some regression. However, Astudillo still put up quality numbers with the Red Wings (.783 OPS) even with his unusually low BABIP in AAA.
Astudillo has also shown more power in the last couple of seasons, slugging .558 in 2017 in AAA Reno before posting a .469 mark in Rochester. He also slugged .516 in brief time in the majors, cracking 15 dingers in 108 total games in 2018. The projection systems also like Astudillo’s chances to be an above average offensive player, with five of the six projections listed on FanGraphs pegging Astudillo for a wRC+ over 100.
But is Willians any good behind the dish? There aren’t as many metrics to judge his performance as a catcher, but the ones that I could find pointed to a fairly positive outlook on Astudillo’s receiving skills. He ranked as an above average pitch framer by Baseball Prospectus in his short stint in the majors in 2018 (finishing in the top third) while BP’s minor league metrics also showed similar results. His blocking metrics were average and his arm isn’t bad either. Over all levels of baseball taken into account by Baseball Reference, Astudillo has thrown out 26% of base stealers, just a couple ticks under the MLB average of 28%.
Comparing Willians to Jason Castro and Mitch Garver
Most prognosticators would expect Castro to be the Twins starting backstop when Rocco Baldelli hands the lineup card to the umpires on March 28th at Target Field. However, the former Houston Astro hasn’t posted a quality offensive season in quite some time, and his defensive dexterity behind the dish may be devolving. Known as a top-notch pitch framer when he signed with the Twins prior to the 2019 season, Castro has fallen off a bit in that department. His CSAA (called strikes above average) marks of 0.009 in 2017 and 0.008 in limited time in 2018 were decent, but not even half of his 0.020 mark in 2016. Without diving too deep into the metrics, his numbers with the Twins the past two season were close to Astudillo’s mark of 0.007 in 2018 and no longer elite. Castro’s blocking abilities grade out as average and his arm has also lost a little bit of luster, as his lifetime caught stealing percentage of 27% is now just average. The Twins’ pitchers had a 5.37 ERA when throwing to Castro in 2018 compared to a 4.40 ERA when pitching to Willians in 2018, though both of these marks are from a small sample. While these stats aren’t the definitive measures of defensive catching prowess, they show that the defensive gap between Astudillo and Castro may be fairly small.
While it could be argued that Castro is still a better defender behind the plate than Astudillo, I don’t believe that makes up for his lack of hitting. Castro’s best season at the plate since his 2013 all-star campaign came in 2017 for the Twins, when he produced wOBA of .315 and a wRC+ of 93. Each of his other four seasons have produced wOBA’s .301 or below, as well as strikeout rates at 29.5% or higher. Almost all projections systems have Castro slated for a wRC+ below 90 and an OPS that would be sub-.700. Castro is also getting older, as he will turn 32 during the season and is coming off a knee surgery that will likely make it even harder for him to return to being both a productive offensive and defensive catcher.
Garver has nearly the opposite case, as his hitting is certainly better than Castro’s while his defense has been subpar to this point in his career. In 86 games catching last season, Garver allowed nine passed balls and was among the worst in the MLB in pitch framing, ranking 97th of 117 MLB catchers. Garver also had trouble limiting base stealers in his first full season, throwing out just 11 of 60 base thieves (18%). Garver still has potential to become a better defender, though his early MLB results are not promising. He did throw out 32% of base stealers in five years in the minor leagues.
“Garv Sauce” has shown some potential with the bat in the minor leagues and also posted decent production for the Twins in 2018, slashing .268/.335/.414 in 103 games. Garver posted a wRC+ plus 116 or above in each level after rookie ball (2014-2017), including a big 2017 AAA campaign with a wRC+ of 159 (slashing .291/.387/.541) in 88 games. However, Garver’s BABIP was .347 in that season, a significant jump above his career marks. He also sported a BABIP of .330 in a the bigs last year, signaling that he may have been a bit lucky on his way to a slightly-above average wRC+ of 102. His Statcast numbers also suggest a bit of regression in 2019, and five of the six projections systems listed on FanGraphs have Garver pegged for a wRC+ plus below 100 in 2019.
How does Willians fit in the Twins current lineup and future plans?
Looking at the Twins lineup as they prepare for the 2019 season, it is laden with right-handed bats (though the pick up of switch-hitting Marwin Gonzalez may balance the scales). This may incline some to slot Castro’s left-handed bat and steady presence behind the plate into the bottom of the lineup. However, the Twins lineup is also chalk full of strikeout-prone batters, and slotting the former Astro into the lineup would only add another consistent whiffer to the starting nine. Garver’s strikeout rates have also been in the 20% range in the big leagues, and Astudillo would be an obvious upgrade over both of the Twins’ other potential backstops in that department.
I believe the key to Astudillo becoming a better option as the Twins starting catcher is sustaining his uptick in power and extra base hits. His contact skills have not wavered in his minor league career, but he has seemed to figure out how to drive the baseball more in recent seasons, especially in 2017 and 2018. If La Tortuga can continue to that trend in 2019, he would be an above average offensive big league player and significantly above average offensive threat at the catcher position. Combine that with average defense behind the plate, and I believe that makes Willians the best catching option on the roster.
Evidenced by the Twins’ pursuit of Robinson Chirinos and Yasmani Grandal in the offseason, they aren’t sold on Jason Castro or Mitch Garver as the primary catcher. And while Astudillo is far from a sure thing, I think his potential to produce offensively as a catcher makes it worth giving him a chance in a full-time role.
And to top it all off, he may be the most interesting player in baseball.
Who should be the Twins starting catcher on Opening Day
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