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MLB — 2019’s most interesting player already hit home run of the year – WSAIGO Sports
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MLB — 2019’s most interesting player already hit home run of the year

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Check out the home run above. Courtesy of the amazing Willians Astudillo, we already have the best home run highlight of 2019. It came in Venezuela, and it defies description. I think the only way it could be topped is if Yasiel Puig hits a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series, but that would mean the Reds getting to the World Series, which seems unlikely.

Astudillo made his big league debut last season with the Minnesota Twins and in 29 games hit .355 with two home runs. But if you remember anything about Astudillo, it’s probably this highlight of him running the bases:

With his nontraditional physique and hair flying behind him like he’s poking his head out of a 747, Astudillo became an immediate cult hero. There’s even a five-minute highlight video of his 2018 exploits on YouTube. For example:

Here he is picking Shane Robinson off first base in a spring training game with a no-look throw:

Here he is pulling off the hidden ball trick while playing for Rochester:

Here he’s petting a fake horse. Yes, a fake horse. Just watch the video and pay close attention:

There was also this face-plant that led to teammate Jose Berrios throwing sunflower seeds at him:

As mentioned, however, he’s not just a freak-show novelty. Here he is belting a walk-off home run to beat the Royals in September:

As you can see from the videos, Astudillo isn’t without some athleticism despite his girth, and he can play multiple positions. With the Twins, he started 14 games at catcher, five at third base, one at second and even played a few innings in the outfield — including an inning in center field, making him, according to Ben Lindbergh, the first player in major league history listed at 5-foot-9 or shorter and 215 pounds or heavier to play center field. In winter ball, he has spent most of his time in left field. At 27, he’s too old to rank high on prospect lists, but he can play and has a chance to stick with the Twins as a utility player.

All of this has helped make Astudillo one of the most fascinating players to watch in 2019. Here’s the thing, though: I haven’t mentioned the most interesting thing about him. The dude never strikes out. Like … almost never. With the Twins, he struck out just three times in 97 plate appearances, a strikeout rate of 3.1 percent. The second-lowest rate belonged to Mets infielder Luis Guillorme, who fanned just three times in 74 PAs, a 4.1 percent rate (although Guillorme was above 10 percent in Triple-A). That’s an outlier total as well: The third-lowest rate was Andrelton Simmons at 7.3 percent, and only six other players were below 10 percent.

Not striking out is Astudillo’s game. At Triple-A Rochester, he fanned just 14 times in 307 PAs. In winter ball, he has four strikeouts in 236 PAs. In his minor league career, he has just 81 strikeouts in 638 games. Joey Gallo struck out 80 times in May and June. Yes, the minor leagues aren’t the majors, and we have to note that Astudillo also never walks — he walked just twice with the Twins and just 84 times in his minor league career. He had those 14 K’s with Rochester, but just 10 walks, giving him a triple-slash line of .276/.314/.469. Basically, when he swings, he puts the ball in play.

He’s an iconoclast in the era of swing and miss.

The greatest contact hitter in the sport’s history is arguably Hall of Famer Joe Sewell. In 1925, he played 155 games, batted 699 times — and struck out four times. In his 14-year career, he batted 8,333 times and fanned just 114 times. Yoan Moncada calls that the All-Star break. Sewell’s career strikeout rate was a minuscule 1.4 percent. Baseball-Reference has game data for Sewell from 1925 to 1933. He had one two-strikeout game, on May 26, 1930, when a pitcher named Pat Carraway of the White Sox got him in the first and third innings. Sewell, who choked up on a 40-ounce bat, didn’t strike out again the rest of the season.

Of course, that was a different era. In 1925, the overall major league strikeout rate was a lowly 6.9 percent. In 2018, it was 22.3 percent. Astudillo rarely whiffs in an era of 100 mph fastballs, nasty cutters and sliders diving off cliffs. Sewell faced Lefty Grove … and a whole bunch of guys throwing 85 mph. (By the way, Sewell faced Grove — the preeminent strikeout pitcher in the American League in his time — 129 times and fanned just one time.)

Let’s compare Astudillo to other low-strikeout hitters by looking at the qualified batters who had the lowest strikeout rate each decade:

There are a couple of ways you can examine this. Astudillo, in his short time with the Twins, fanned 19.2 percent less often than the average hitter. Sewell, in 1925, fanned just 6.3 percent less often, although obviously had less room to “improve.” If we compare the player’s rate to the league rate, Sewell’s 1932 season stands as the best, while Astudillo’s rate compares to Boudreau, Fox and Dave Cash’s 1976 season with the Phillies. (I wonder if Cash made a concerted effort not to strike out that season. He had 47 extra-base hits in 1975 and 49 in 1977, but just 27 in 1976, batting more than 700 times each season.)

What kind of role will Astudillo have with the Twins in 2019? His Baseball-Reference projection has him at .279/.335/.438 (with 42 strikeouts in 249 PAs, which seems like way too many). He’s third on the catching depth chart behind Jason Castro and Mitch Garver, although Baseball Prospectus’ minor league framing metrics rated him as a solid pitch framer. The third baseman is Ehire Adrianza — or Miguel Sano, if the Twins try to put him back there — so maybe there’s an opportunity there. The outfield appears pretty set with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, and Jake Cave as the backup. Nelson Cruz will soak up all the DH at-bats. Still, there’s playing time to be had, and I think Astudillo hits his way into 300 or so plate appearances.

Which means plenty of highlight videos to keep everyone happy all summer.



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Aaron Nola of Phillies, Luis Severino of Yankees likely among players headed to arbitration

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Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola and New York Yankees pitcher Luis Severino did not reach settlements on one-year deals for the 2019 season and are expected to head to arbitration hearings to determine their salaries, league sources told ESPN on Friday.

Severino and Nola are both first-time-eligible starting pitchers, a market that has been notoriously difficult for players. While first-time-eligible closers regularly exceed $6 million salaries, the only starting pitcher to do so was Dallas Keuchel coming off his Cy Young season with the Houston Astros.

The non-settlements capping a wild morning in which more than 100 eligible players negotiated their contracts. Those who did not come to terms with teams are expected to head to an arbitration hearing.

There were, however, some record settlements reached Friday.

• American League MVP Mookie Betts set a new standard for players with four or more years of service by settling with the Boston Red Sox for $20 million — a raise of $9.5 million over 2017, when he beat the Red Sox in an arbitration hearing.

• National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom more than doubled his salary with the New York Mets, jumping from $7.4 million to $17 million to set a record for the highest raise in arbitration, which had been set just hours earlier by Betts.

Khris Davis, who led the majors with 48 home runs and was second with 123 RBIs last season, settled with the Oakland Athletics for $16.5 million — a raise of $6 million.

Nearly 200 players are in the arbitration system, which covers every player who has spent three, four or five full seasons in the major leagues and a small percentage of those with the most service days in the class of two-year players. Once a player reaches six full seasons of service time, he can become a free agent the following winter.

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New York Mets, Jacob deGrom agree to $17 million, 1-year contract

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NEW YORK — NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets agreed to a $17 million, one-year contract, a record raise for an arbitration-eligible player from his $7.4 million salary.

The deal was agreed to Friday before the pitcher and team were to exchange proposed salaries in arbitration. It also set a mark for a pitcher eligible for arbitration for the third time.

The $9.6 million raise broke the record set just hours earlier by Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, who got a $9.5 million bump to $20 million for 2019. Two raises of $9 million or more for second-, third- and fourth-time arbitration-eligible players never had happened prior to Friday.

Fellow Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard agreed to a $6 million deal, doubling his salary.

DeGrom led the majors with a 1.70 ERA in 217 innings and was selected to his second All-Star Game. He was fifth in MVP voting after receiving little run support on a fourth-place squad.

The right-hander went 10-9 with 269 strikeouts in 32 remarkably consistent starts for a team that finished 77-85. The 30-year-old can become a free agent after the 2020 season if the Mets don’t sign their electric ace to a multiyear contract by then.

New York sounds open to a long-term deal under new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, who was deGrom’s agent before switching sides and taking the front-office job. Talks could take place soon, though Van Wagenen has said he’ll recuse himself from negotiations involving deGrom to avoid a conflict of interest.

Syndergaard went 13-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 25 starts last season but had some trouble staying healthy again. The right-hander logged only 30 1/3 innings in 2017 because of a torn lat muscle. Last year he missed time with a finger injury and an illness, finishing with 155 strikeouts and 39 walks in 154 1/3 innings.

The 26-year-old Syndergaard, an All-Star in 2016, won five of his last six decisions and pitched the first two complete games of his career in September, including a shutout on the final day of the season.

Syndergaard’s name was often mentioned in trade talk early this offseason, with the Padres and Marlins among the teams said to be seriously interested. Van Wagenen didn’t rule out such a move at first, but eventually indicated the Mets plan to keep Thor at the front of a stingy rotation that is the foundation of the team.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Cubs sign suspended SS Addison Russell for below market value

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CHICAGO — The Cubs have signed suspended shortstop Addison Russell to a one-year deal worth $3.4 million, avoiding an arbitration hearing, according to a source.

Russell can make up to a total of $4 million with roster time incentives, pro-rated, after serving his suspension for violation of domestic abuse policies.

Russell, 24, will miss the first 28 games of 2019 as part of a 40-game suspension handed down late last season, after details emerged about abuse allegations stemming from his marriage to his former wife.

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