As the world’s greatest golfers convene in Augusta, Georgia, this week for the Masters, it’s time for every sports fan’s annual rite of spring: wild speculation about whether Tiger Woods can add a fifth green jacket to his closet. Picking Woods used to be a trendy bet; then it began to feel like a totally futile exercise. Well after he last won the event in 2005, there was a period when Woods was in the news constantly for everything except golf success. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that Woods’s relevance as a winning golfer seemed finished, along with his bid to chase down Jack Nicklaus’s record for all-time majors won.
But that all changed last season, when Woods put everything back together again to finish eighth on the PGA Tour money list and win the season-ending Tour Championship in September. Now Woods is back, in his best position in years to win another Masters. According to VegasInsider, Woods has the third-best odds of any player to win this weekend; he’s also playing even more inspired golf than he did during last year’s comeback campaign. But at age 43, will this be one of Woods’s last chances to win at Augusta before his days of being a viable champion are over?
Certainly, Tiger has been outplaying many of his much younger rivals these past few seasons. Since the end of his lost 2017 campaign, Woods ranks sixth among qualified1 PGA Tour players in total strokes gained per round, trailing only Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood. He’s mostly regained his old mastery of irons on approach shots and still has some of the game’s best feel for shots around the green. In terms of strokes gained, Woods is picking up 1.67 shots (relative to the average player) per round so far in 2019, an even better mark than the 1.60 he posted last season — which itself was easily his best performance in five years.
One of the most impressive aspects of Woods’s early play this season has been improved accuracy off the tee. According to the PGA Tour, Woods has hit 65.2 percent of possible fairways on his drives this season, which ranks 54th out of 214 qualified players. That might not sound amazing, but by Woods’s standards, it is ultraprecise accuracy. Last year, he hit only 59.4 percent of fairways, which ranked him 127th, and he struggled to break 55 percent over the four injury-plagued seasons before that. (Even during his really great pre-scandal/injury seasons, hitting fairways was an Achilles’ heel. In 2007, when he made the most money playing golf of his career, Woods ranked 152nd in driving accuracy and failed to hit 60 percent of fairways.) When Woods is scuffling, the first indication is often a wayward drive that requires subsequent artistry just to make par.
With the help of that improved accuracy, Woods now ranks 72nd in strokes gained on drives this year — he was 100th last year — and ninth in strokes gained from the tee to the green, picking up 1.48 shots per round before ever setting his spikes on the putting surface. Classic Tiger was always a tee-to-green monster, ranking either first or second in the category every healthy season from 2006 to 2013, so his strong performance in that category this year is another signal that Woods is returning to vintage form.
It’s also a very good sign for his chances at Augusta. That’s because, as Todd Schneider wrote about for FiveThirtyEight a few years ago, the Masters often comes down to a player’s skills with the long clubs — contrary to the tournament’s reputation for being a putting contest.
Great PGA Tour players generally assert themselves most on approach shots and drives anyway, gaining about 4 strokes relative to average from tee to green for every extra shot they pick up on putts. But the recent history of Masters winners also suggests that a great long game is the true prerequisite for winning the green jacket. The average winner since strokes gained was first tracked in 2004 (excluding the 2016 and 2017 winners, Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia, because they lacked enough PGA Tour rounds to qualify for official leaderboards) ranked only about 86th in putting performance per round but 35th in strokes gained off the tee, 32nd in strokes gained on approach shots and 18th in total strokes gained from tee to green.
|PGA Tour Rank|
|Year||Masters Winner||Off Tee||Approach||Around Green||Tee to Green||Putting||Total|
Strokes gained tee-to-green was the top category (or tied for the top) for 46 percent of the Masters winners over that span,2 and 62 percent of winners ranked among the Top 10 in the statistic — like Woods does this year. (This is consistent with my previous research that driving distance and approach accuracy are the two secret weapons players can possess at Augusta, causing them to play better in the Masters than their overall scoring average would predict.)
I haven’t mentioned Tiger’s putting numbers yet, and with good reason. Woods used to be the greatest putter in the world, but so far this season he ranks just 74th in strokes gained with the flatstick, adding only 0.19 shots above average per round. Last year, he was better — 48th on tour — though he still wasn’t the putting maestro who once showed me and countless others the fundamentals of a great stroke. However, Augusta has frequently seen putters who rank far worse than Woods win during the era of detailed PGA Tour tracking data. (In fact, more than half of qualified Masters winners since 2004 have ranked worse than 78th in putting.) Putting performance is so random from year to year — much less from tournament to tournament or even round to round — that it’s a lot easier for a good tee-to-green player to get hot on the green for a weekend than for a good putter to suddenly have an uncharacteristically amazing weekend off the tee.
Because of all this, it’s not hard to understand why Woods is a strong 12-to-1 bet to win the Masters. But it’s also not hard to imagine that this could be the 43-year-old’s last, best chance to win another green jacket. Using our research on historical major winners from a few years ago, here’s what the aging curve for championship golfers looks like:
That spike in wins for players in their early 40s came from 42-year-olds Ernie Els, Darren Clarke, Payne Stewart, Tom Kite and Gary Player, and it was the last actual uptick on the chart — and Woods is now on the wrong side of it. Jack Nicklaus famously won his final major at age 46, but most great golfers are largely done winning by their early to mid-40s. And the game has only gotten younger in the twilight of Woods’s career; while the average major-winner in our data set above (through 2014) was 31.9, that number is just 29.6 in the years since. With his own early career dominance and popularity, Woods has inspired a younger generation of gifted golfers that he now must do battle with.
Woods is a special talent and in the conversation for the greatest golfer ever.3 He’s playing as well heading into Augusta as he has in a long time and excelling in exactly the right categories. But between aging effects and his own injury history, he may never have a better shot at winning another Masters than he does right now. Once upon a time, Tiger was legendary for pouncing on every opportunity left in front of him. We’ll just have to see if he can summon that ability yet again.
Willians Astudillo was already something of a cult hero before he made this year’s opening day roster of the Minnesota Twins. He earned a video shoutout on MLB.com shortly after his major league debut last year when his first-to-home sprint left him gasping. And ESPN tweeted that he “may have broken every single one of baseball’s unwritten rules” after he kneeled in the batter’s box to watch a winter ball home run. (The kneel was “a natural reaction,” Astudillo told us. “I thought it was going to be foul.”)
But there’s another thing that makes the 27-year-old rookie nicknamed La Tortuga is perhaps the most interesting man in baseball: his bat. No one in pro baseball hits quite like he does.
Among all major league hitters in history to record at least 100 plate appearances, Astudillo ranks first in batting average (.382). While he looks something like Bartolo Colon, he’s hitting like Ty Cobb.
With the Twins and Diamondbacks Triple-A teams in 2018 and 2017, Astudillo posted the lowest strikeout rate each season among all Double-A and Triple-A batters with at least 100 plate appearances. In the farm systems of the Braves and Phillies in 2016 and 2015, he had the lowest K-rates in all of the minors. Across his entire minor league career, he struck out just 81 times in 2,461 plate appearances (3.3 percent). With velocity and strikeouts at record levels across the majors, it’s never been more difficult to make contact with a pitch. But in an age when walks and on-base percentage are prized, Astudillo has shown little interest in watching pitches go by. He walked on just 85 occasions (a 3.5 percent walk rate) across nine seasons in the minors.1
In his brief major league career, he’s striking out at a 2.8 percent rate. Two players have had lower K rates for a season since 1989: Tony Gwynn (1995) and Felix Fermin (1993 and 1995).
Astudillo has always hit. So why did it take him 10 years to make the major leagues? It’s probably that the sport didn’t know what to do with him. No one has looked, or hit, quite like the 5-foot-9, 225-pound catcher/utility man.
The Twins’ scouts were perplexed by Astudillo, said Derek Falvey, the chief baseball officer for Minnesota.
“They weren’t necessarily projecting the power or the on-base skill because of the lack of walks,” Falvey said. “I’d say [the scouts’ grade on his bat] was probably fringe-average, in that range, toward average. It wasn’t anything that stood out.”
He was such an outlier that Minnesota’s own projection system struggled to find comps when the Twins were scouring minor league free agents after the 2017 season.2
“He’s an interesting guy because he’s not someone projection systems would easily pick out,” Falvey said. “It’s a simple reason: Projection systems are based upon history. Take a random player, like Jonathan Schoop. You know what his track record was through the minor leagues. If you have a similar batted-ball profile, strikeout rate, swing-and-miss rate, all those things, there’s a chance you might become someone like him over time. That’s the way projection systems are built. They look at history to then look at the future.
“Willians is kind of his own breed.”
Astudillo is interesting for another reason, too: He’s getting better.
Astudillo’s grandfather and father were obsessed with baseball. His father had played professionally in Venezuela. Astudillo remembers a drill in which his father would kneel a few feet away and flick corn kernels toward him in their backyard in the coastal city of Barcelona, Venezuela. Astudillo’s objective was to hit the knuckling projectiles with a broomstick. He thinks his rare contact ability is part nature and part nurture.
“I think it’s just who I’ve been since the beginning, practicing with my dad and my grandfather. That close nucleus back home, just practicing,” Astudillo told FiveThirtyEight through an interpreter. “It’s something that I have. I don’t know how to explain it exactly.”
But low-strikeout, high-contact hitters are increasingly interesting for another reason beyond their scarcity: They’ve shown a knack for developing power.
The average launch angle has increased every year since Statcast began measuring balls in play in 2015, from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 degrees last season and to what would be a record rate of 13.2 degrees as it stands early this season. (Astudillo’s average launch angle was 12.2 degrees last season.) That trend suggests that more hitters are trying to hit balls above infield shifts and out of the ballpark.
Hitters with excellent contact rates but unlikely power-hitting builds — like Jose Ramirez, Jose Altuve, Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor — have become sluggers in recent seasons. As more batters are adjusting their swing planes, elite contact hitters have made the greatest offensive gains — measured in one way by isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average.
Astudillo has also gained power in recent years without having to sacrifice his contact ability. No projection system or scout saw that coming. Falvey, who had worked in the Cleveland front office before taking the Twins job, noted that Ramirez was also a high-contact hitter before he had an unlikely power breakout.
“Did anyone see Jose Ramirez turning into that kind of power hitter?” he said. “If anyone tells you they believed that at the outset — I worked there — I can tell you that’s not true. We did believe he had some interesting profile traits. Same thing with Willians.”
While Astudillo was limited to 128 Triple-A plate appearances with the Diamondbacks in 2017, his isolated power jumped to a career-best .217, up from .065 the previous year. His previous best ISO mark had been .101. (The MLB average ISO was .161 in 2018.) With the Twins last year, he followed up with a .192 ISO mark in 307 plate appearances in Triple-A and a .161 mark in 97 plate appearances with the major league club.
His power has been present early this season, too. Within his first three major league swings of 2019 on Sunday, he doubled twice. In his second start Wednesday, Astudillo went 3-for-5 with another double.
“I think it’s the experience from playing more often,” Astudillo said of his power surge. “Yes, I made contact (early in my career), but it was mostly weak contact. I was swinging at pitches a little out of the zone. Now I am not swinging at those pitches. I am being more selective.”
Astudillo ranks 35th in the frequency of swinging at pitches out of the zone among major league hitters to have recorded at least 100 plate appearances since last season, and he ranks 17th in swing percentage. But Falvey noted that Astudillo doesn’t dramatically expand his zone and offer at pitches far outside the strike zone.
“It’s not like he’s trying to chase balls over his head or out of the strike zone,” Falvey said. “He just constantly attacks strikes. He has a unique ability that when he attacks a strike, he usually doesn’t miss.”
When Astudillo goes outside the zone, he’s not going that far out of the zone. And when he swings — either in or out of the zone — he doesn’t miss. Astudillo leads baseball in contact rate (91.9 percent) and out-of-zone contact rate (83.3) among batters with at least 100 plate appearances since last season. That’s well above the MLB averages for both last season, with contact rate at 76.9 percent and out-of-zone contact at 60.1 percent.
While Astudillo’s bat is fascinating, it’s not the reason the Twins signed him in November 2017 to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. They were intrigued by his glove.
During their organizational meetings last spring, Twins officials went through the scouting reports on players in their camp. As they looked at Astudillo, they thought he could play second, third, left field and catcher — important versatility in a sport that increasingly requires roster flexibility. A Twins evaluator in the room then spoke up.
“‘He can play center, too, just ask him,’” Falvey recalled.
The club officials were amused. Center field didn’t seem like a natural fit for the stout player. But Astudillo showed them the proof: video of himself robbing a home run in a 2014 Venezuelan winter league playoff game.
Months later, after several Twins went down with heat exhaustion during a game on a sweltering afternoon last June, Astudillo trotted out to center field in Wrigley Field. He became the first player 5-foot-9 or shorter weighing more than 220 pounds to play center in a major league baseball game, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
But even given his versatility, the Twins thought he was best suited to play catcher, according to Falvey. Astudillo rated as an above-average pitch framer throughout his minor league career, according to Baseball Prospectus defensive metrics — and pitch framing has been a focus of Falvey’s since he took the reins of the Twins after the 2016 season.
While the Twins initially brought in Astudillo for his interesting glove, it’s his bat that will ultimately determine how much he plays and whether he’s a short-lived curiosity or becomes a useful major leaguer.
Even the Twins admit that they didn’t see this player emerging. But as is so often the case with Astudillo, what you expect is not what you get.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.
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Last week, President Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border this week “if Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States.” Were that to happen, the U.S. would run out of avocados in three weeks, according to the CEO of the world’s largest avocado-growing and -distributing company. Forty percent or more of the U.S.’s imported fruits and vegetables are grown in Mexico. [The Guardian]
Bernie Sanders raised a whopping $18.2 million in the first six weeks of his presidential campaign, a stat that “cements his status as one of the top fund-raisers in the sprawling Democratic field,” according to The New York Times. The money came via 900,000 contributions from 525,000 individual donors, according to Sanders’s campaign manager. [The New York Times]
The price of Bitcoin (remember it?) surged some 15 percent on Tuesday, to about $4,800 — a four-month high. And in a bit of analysis that roughly dovetails with my overall understanding of cryptocurrency, “the reason for the sudden price jump wasn’t immediately clear,” CNBC reported. [CNBC]
And then there were four. The Baylor Lady Bears, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, UConn Huskies and Oregon Ducks are the sole survivors of the 2019 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. According to our predictions, their chances of winning the championship on April 7 are 58 percent, 23 percent, 15 percent and 5 percent, respectively. [FiveThirtyEight]
There have been 387 reported cases of measles — a very contagious and very preventable disease — in the U.S. this year, already surpassing the 372 cases reported during all of 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles killed some 90,000 people worldwide in 2016. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that American doctors were heretofore so unfamiliar with seeing the disease, which was declared nonexistent in the country in 2000, in person that they have been reviewing photos of the measles rash “to refresh their memories.” [San Francisco Chronicle]
Amazon, owner of Whole Foods, is cutting prices at its grocer for the third time in two years, and the company reports that customers will see an average savings of 20 percent on some items. Nevertheless, last month a Morgan Stanley analyst found that Whole Foods’s prices had risen for three months straight and were 15 percent above its rivals’. [CNN]
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If you see a significant digit in the wild, please send it to @ollie.
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