I’m sure my colleagues La Velle E. Neal III and Patrick Reusse will write about Friday callup Willians Astudillo in more detail and with great intrigue this weekend as the Twins face the Cubs at Wrigley Field, but I wanted to go a little micro on Astudillo’s greatest trait: his ability to put the ball in play.
At a time when MLB is struggling with pace of play and length of game issues — related topics, but not one and the same — Astudillo is the hero baseball needs.
The average MLB game this season has lasted 3 hours, 4 minutes — about 20 minutes (at least) too long for my tastes and the tastes of plenty of both hardcore and casual baseball fans.
That’s actually an improvement from last year’s 3:08, but assuming games don’t become ultra-fast in the second half of the season this will be the seventh consecutive year that games lasted an average of at least 3 hours.
Contrast that with other sports: The average soccer game is over in a few minutes less than 2 hours. The average NBA game is 2:15. NHL is about 2:20. NFL is closer to 3 hours, but it’s only once a week and the action within the game doesn’t seem to drag on.
Within baseball’s length of game problem is a pace of play problem. The biggest culprit is probably the amount of time between pitches — which could be eradicated easily and hopefully will be soon with a pitch clock — but another factor is long at-bats. The number of pitches per plate appearance has crept upward in recent years, as has the number of plate appearances that end either in a walk or strikeout.
This season, 31 percent of plate appearances in MLB — nearly one-third — have ended in a walk or strikeout. A decade ago, it was 26 percent. In 1985, it was 22.6 percent.
But Astudillo is almost single-handedly trying to change that. In 2,786 career plate appearances in the minor leagues and winter ball, the 26-year-old — who was born 13 days before the Twins won their last World Series in 1991 — has walked just 97 times and more incredibly struck out just 87 times. Those are not misprints.
Exactly 6.6 percent of his career plate appearances have ended in a walk or strikeout — or about one-fifth as many as the MLB average this season. He’s also hit .305 in his career, spending time with the Phillies, Braves and D-Backs organizations before latching on with the Twins this offseason.
Short of a pitch clock, MLB just needs about 200 Willians Astudillos and everything will be fine.