FORT MYERS, FLA. – Ehire Adrianza’s phone buzzed Monday night with a text from a teammate, asking for his help. Adrianza smiled when he saw its author — Willians Astudillo — and laughed when he read the message. He debated whether to break some disappointing news.
“Willians texts to say, ‘Hey man, can you give me some advice? I’m playing shortstop tomorrow,’ ” Adrianza said, laughing again at the memory. “He was fired up. He was ready for it.”
Adrianza decided to be supportive, texting back: “Just go play. You know how to play baseball, you got this. Just go have fun with it.”
Adrianza was the one having fun, though. He saw the day-early lineup posted in the Twins clubhouse, too, noticed that it said he was playing third base against the Rays and Astudillo was at short — the only position on the diamond that the erstwhile catcher and utility player had never manned in his professional career. Adrianza asked his coaches if the lineup was correct, and discovered it was not; the positions had inadvertently been switched when manger Rocco Baldelli and his coaches made a change.
Astudillo came to the ballpark on Tuesday and learned he was actually playing third base, his second most common position. He was happy to be in the lineup, but a little disappointed not to be showing off his skills in the middle of the diamond.
“I played shortstop for 10 years” in Venezuela as a child, Astudillo protested. “I can play third, second, first — shortstop, too.”
By now, who are we to doubt him? Astudillo has spent his professional career — a decade long already, though he didn’t break through to the majors until June 30 of last year — defying expectations and exploding stereotypes. He’s a catcher who can dive for a ground ball, an infielder who can block a pitch in the dirt, an outfielder who, at least in winter ball, has saved home runs with leaping catches.
And if that isn’t rare enough, Astudillo also possesses a supernatural ability to put bat on ball. It’s about as fundamental a skill as a ballplayer can possess, and yet virtually no other player can match the 27-year-old rookie for making contact.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone with the hand-eye coordination that he has,” said Twins hitting coach James Rowson. “You know, the ball is coming at you at a high speed, and it’s moving. Sometimes down, sometimes inside or out, and it takes a special skill to have the wherewithal to get the bat to that exact spot. It’s not a fluke, he’s just better at it.”
During Astudillo’s two stints with the Twins last year, a total of 97 trips to the plate in 29 games, he faced 299 pitches. He swung at 168 of them, or 57.2 percent, among the highest rates in baseball. But he failed to make contact only 16 times, or less than one in every 10 swings (9.5 percent). By comparison, teammate Joe Mauer, one of the most highly regarded contact hitters in the game, fanned on 11.8 percent of the pitches he took a cut at.
And with two strikes? Astudillo didn’t get that deep in the count very often, but he was nearly impossible to strike out. He faced 75 two-strike pitches, let 27 of them go by — he was never called out on strikes, not once — and swung at 48. Of those, he fouled off 17, put 28 in play, and swung and missed just three times.
“Guys like him are pests,” Rowson said. “They make life tough on pitchers, because they spoil so many good pitches and make you throw another.”
So why does a player with such a rare skill languish in the minors for 10 seasons, get shuffled between three organizations before the Twins seek him out and sign him, and even now, after impressing the Twins in multiple ways, face roughly 50-50 odds of making the roster? It’s partly because teams aren’t sure how to evaluate him.
“He breaks the models. There are not many [comparisons] for him,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer. “Projection systems and scouts historically try to put each player in context of ‘who was like this guy before?’ to help you understand who he might be going forward. And there just aren’t many comps for Willians Astudillo. He’s his own rare breed.”
Is there a place on the roster for such a breed, for a multi-position player with extraordinary contact skills? Falvey makes no promises, but says “we’ll keep the 25 best able to help us win. And Willians has an intriguing case.”
An entertaining one, too. Twins fans realized that the day last September when Astudillo chugged from first base to the plate to score on a Max Kepler double, his long curls flapping behind him as he hit top speed, biting his tongue as he went. The moment was immortalized in a video that went viral, the effect multiplied when Astudillo said through an interpreter that “I just wanted to show that chubby people also run.”
The video made Astudillo a star, and a sensation in the Twin Cities. He was tagged with the nickname “La Tortuga,” Spanish for “The Turtle,” a moniker that bothered him at first. “He didn’t like it. He said he’s not slow,” Adrianza said of his teammate. “But he sees how much people like it. He doesn’t mind it now.”
In fact, he seems a little fazed by the attention. all the time. “I go outside and I do whatever I can to help the team,” he said. “If people enjoy it, that’s OK.”
People seem to like Astudillo a lot, especially in the Twins clubhouse. “He’s like [Eduardo Escobar] — very funny, jokes a lot, always smiling,” Adrianza said. “Except when he’s playing. He takes that seriously.”
He has to, given how many positions he plays, a talent that requires plenty of extra practice time. Astudillo is the only player in Twins history who has ever started games at catcher and also second or third base. He’s the only player besides Cesar Tovar, who played all nine positions in a game in 1968, to ever play (though not start) at catcher and center field.
Astudillo regularly plays all over the field in winter ball, including the outfield, according to Twins Class AAA pitching coach Stu Cliburn, who has managed in Venezuela for years. “He’s like a superhero over there. He’s beloved,” Cliburn said, never more so than when he hit a home run in the championship series in January, fell to one knee, and stayed in that position while watching to see if it stayed fair. “There’s not much he can’t do there.”
“People talk to me about that [home run] all the time. Every day,” said Astudillo. “Big play, big home run. It was exciting.”
Playing shortstop would be exciting, too, he said. So is that so far-fetched?
“It was just a misprint, but that doesn’t mean in the future, the next time it might not be the case. You never know,” Baldelli said coyly. “I’m not implying anything, [but] you just might want to put it out there.”