- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Jose Altuve Is Starlin Castro 2.0

I’ve been meaning to write about Jose Altuve for a couple of weeks now, but with Ryan espousing the virtues of Starlin Castro, this seems like the perfect time to talk about Altuve. Why does an article about the Cubs shortstop lead to a follow-up article about the Astros second baseman? Because Castro and Altuve are essentially the exact same player.

Below are the Major League career batting lines for both Castro and Altuve.

Starlin Castro 1345 5.0% 13.8% 0.350 0.117 0.309 0.345 0.426 0.335 105
Jose Altuve 356 3.7% 12.9% 0.338 0.111 0.301 0.331 0.413 0.328 107

You’d be hard pressed to find two more similar batting lines between any two players in baseball. Castro’s numbers are fractionally higher across the board, but after you adjust for the falling league average during the times they’ve been in the league (average wOBA was .321 in 2010, .316 last year, and .313 this year), Altuve’s line is marginally better. In reality, though, the differences are so small that the best description of their performances is that they’re pretty much the same.

While we’re obviously dealing with a much smaller sample in Altuve’s performance, Castro is the perfect example of this skillset’s upside. While many aggressive hitters get themselves out by chasing too many pitches they can’t hit, high contact/gap power middle infielders have been having success with this kind of approach for years, and Castro just looks like the heir apparent to the Tony Fernandez throne. Guys who can make a lot of contact while also driving the ball into the gaps can have success even without taking walks, especially if they can hold their own at a premium defensive position.

And, while it’s still early in Altuve’s career, he’s actually showing that he might actually be better at the contact/power combination than Castro. In his 234 plate appearances as a rookie last year, his contact rate on swings was 87.5 percent, slightly higher than Castro has posted in any MLB season. During the first five weeks of the 2010 season, his contact rate has jumped up to 93.6 percent, tying him with Marco Scutaro and Ichiro Suzuki for the highest contact rate of any hitter in baseball. If you look at 2011 and 2012 together, Altuve’s 89.3 percent contact rate puts him 23rd in baseball among players with 300+ PA. Castro’s career contact rate is a strong 85.0 percent, but he’s actually trending downwards, coming in at 82.7 percent so far in 2012.

Altuve’s rise in contact rate stems from a similar spike in improved selectivity, as his swing rate has dropped from 55.0 percent last year to 38.9 percent this year, but more importantly, he’s not swinging at pitches out of the zone that he can’t hit. Last year, he chased 41.3 percent of pitches that Pitch F/x labeled as out of the zone and made contact with 72.4 percent of those pitches – this year, his O-Swing is down to 28.5 percent and his O-Contact is up to 86.9 percent. His rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone is virtually unchanged, so this rise in O-Contact is the driving force behind his early season contact improvements.

The rise in selectivity has also resulted in a spike in his walk rate, as he’s drawn three more walks this year than he did in nearly twice the amount of plate appearances last year. Again, we’re still dealing with small sample theatre, but Altuve is showing a greatly improved approach at the plate over what he demonstrated a year ago, so his strong start to the season isn’t all just a dramatic spike in BABIP.

Like Castro, Altuve’s going to need to a post an above average BABIP in order to sustain his offensive value, and like Castro, he’s not likely to keep getting hits to fall in as often as they have so far in 2012. However, he doesn’t have to be a .400 BABIP guy in order to be a productive player – the rest-of-season ZIPS projections expect a .298/.332/.414 line from him over the remainder of 2012, and that’s with a projected BABIP of .332. That’s pretty similar to the .307/.345/.433 mark that ZIPS sees from Castro over the next five months, and even though Castro plays the tougher defensive position, they’re both projected for right around +3 WAR through the rest of the season.

While we have a larger sample of data to evaluate Castro with, we shouldn’t forget that Altuve is actually six weeks younger and is flashing the same skillset and getting the same strong results from it to begin his career. While his height and the general skepticism surrounding second base prospects kept him from getting as much recognition in the minors, you should be nearly as excited about Altuve’s Major League future as you are about Castro’s. Both are showing that they can be effective hitters while defending up-the-middle positions, and Altuve’s early season improvements in approach suggest that he isn’t yet a finished product.

Before the season started, we wondered if the 2012 Astros were going to be one of the worst teams we’ve seen in recent history. Thanks in large part to the success of Jose Altuve (and his double play partner Jed Lowrie, but that’s another post), the Astros are actually a respectable 13-16 and are giving their fans reasons for optimism. Altuve might not yet be a household name, but he’s on his way to establishing himself as a legitimate young star that the Astros can build around.