Is that an inflammatory headline? It feels like it might be. It’s not like Jose Altuve was bad before, of course. But this is the Internet, where it’s important to entice people to click on stories, and if you’re reading this, then I’ve already won. Success! Anyway, maybe this is more of a “me” thing than anything else, but had you asked me prior to the season who the most overrated player in baseball was, Altuve’s name likely would have been mentioned. Not that Altuve was a poor player; far from it. It’s just that when you think about the reasons he was notable, the list would go something like this:
- Because he is a big league player despite his remarkably small stature
- Because he was one of the few decent players on atrocious Houston teams
- Because he made an All-Star team in his first full season
- Because he could steal bases (33 and 35 in his two full seasons) and hit around .290, which are shiny stats
The first two items, of course, have little to do with how good he is as a baseball player; the third says more about his teammates and the “every team must be represented” rule than anything else. (What, you wanted Justin Maxwell or Lucas Harrell?) The fourth, while at least nominally in the right direction, ignores that he didn’t show plus power, on-base skills or defense.
In more than 1,500 plate appearances prior to this year, he was worth 3.1 WAR combined. Over the last two seasons, he was less valuable than Alcides Escobar or Yasmani Grandal; he was less valuable than Chipper Jones, which sounds like it’s not a bad thing, since Jones is probably going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer in a few years, but is when you remember that Jones took exactly zero plate appearances in 2013.
It seemed that he was a fine player to have on teams that were regularly threatening major league records for futility, but perhaps wasn’t a player you’d build around as the Astros improved. And it wasn’t only me, really. One prominent Astros blog asked in January, only half-jokingly, whether Altuve could be the worst Houston regular in 2014. That’s partially because the hope was that guys like George Springer and Jon Singleton and Dexter Fowler and Jason Castro would all be valuable in 2014 — which has somewhat, but not completely, happened — and partially because a 1-2 WAR second baseman just isn’t that big of a deal.
But now, just over halfway through the season? Now, he’s having cleats from his fourth straight multiple steal game going to the Hall of Fame. Now, he leads the American League in hits and steals. Now, the second baseman rankings look like this… (all stats prior to Tuesday’s games)
…and when Astros manager Bo Porter says things like “If you give me a vote and the season ended today, he’s the MVP of the American League” and “In my opinion, this guy’s the best player in baseball and he’s going out and proving it right now,” it can be taken as a manager simply over-zealously supporting his own player and not the words of a man who shouldn’t be allowed in public without supervision.
So what gives? How does Altuve go from a decent-ish regular to a player on pace for a six-win season? There’s his age, of course. Just as I will never ever be able to get it through my head that Doug Fister throws with his right hand and not his left, it constantly seems shocking just how young Altuve still is, having only turned 24 in May. He is, believe it or not, eight months younger than Springer is. He’s younger than Giancarlo Stanton, who remains very young. Youth alone doesn’t guarantee improvement, of course; to paraphrase a famous saying, many a player has been 23 with a great chance of turning 24. But given that Altuve had played fewer than 400 minor league games when he was called up shortly after his 21st birthday in 2011, we shouldn’t discount the fact that young players can still improve.
There’s the BABIP angle too, obviously. Altuve’s .362 is considerably higher than he’s ever had before, and it’s one of the highest marks in baseball. It is, most likely, going to regress. But it’s far too simplistic to suggest that Altuve’s breakout season is entirely due to luck, because he’s always been a higher-than-normal BABIP guy thanks to his speed, and BABIP alone isn’t going to gain him the 70 points of OBP he’s seeing.
So it’s the normal progression of youth, maybe, and a bit of good luck, perhaps. That’s probably part of it, and sometimes you have to dig a whole lot deeper than that. But sometimes things just slap you right in the face as far as how obvious they are, and that’s something Altuve has given to us. Check out the chart at the right. While all of baseball strikes out more, Altuve has cut his strikeout rate in half. He is now literally the most difficult man in baseball to strike out, at least among qualified hitters, and while simply making contact isn’t enough — as Ben Revere and Juan Pierre have shown, “contact” and “good contact” are two very different things — it’s clearly not unrelated to huge improvement. Put more balls in play, get more hits on balls in play, have better numbers. Sometimes, it’s that easy.
But that’s not good enough. We want to know how he did it. It’s not that he’s swinging more or less; his swing rate is almost identical to last year’s, although he’s traded some outside the zone swings for in the zone swings, which is a positive. His contact rate is up slightly over last year, though is basically at his career average.
No, it seems he’s made some real, tangible changes in his approach, the kind we can actually investigate. Two of them, actually, as he discussed in this Houston Chronicle article from last month, which is full of great information even if it does have serious “best shape of his life” red flags on it. First, he worked with hitting coach John Mallee on his mechanics:
Last year, Altuve would stride early with his left foot and then swing. That stride left him vulnerable because after he would stride early to his left toe he had to regain momentum and restart his swing again when he was getting ready to attack the ball.
“His left foot would stride to his toe early, and he would be down real early. And when the pitch came, he had to restart,” Mallee said. “Now he just stays in motion, and he lets his eyes tell him when to put his foot down. His timing has been better, and when he’s off time, he’s in more of a powerful position.
Well, that seems easy enough to test. Here’s a plate appearance from June 2013, selected completely at random other than ensuring it was in Houston, against Milwaukee’s Burke Badenhop.
Ugly. Now, another randomly selected June plate appearance in Houston, but this time from 2014:
It’s just a forgettable groundout to shortstop against Aaron Harang, but the difference is pretty clear, and just as the Chronicle article suggested. Rather than a stop-and-start motion, Altuve is swinging in one continuous flow. I’m not a hitting coach and don’t pretend to be, but that seems like a much more efficient way to hit.
Here’s the other, potentially more important change:
“So even if it’s a pitch that’s a strike, if it’s not something he can drive, being able to take it,” Mallee said. “We identified where his strengths were within the strike zone, and then we did a lot of drills on working on just attacking that and taking (and not swinging at) everything else that’s in the strike zone. Truly, that’s what selective aggressive hitting is.”
This, again, is not overly complicated. Don’t swing at bad pitches. Swing at good pitches. Much, much easier said than done, of course, and the O-Swing% and Z-Swing% reflect it. But in Altuve’s case, there is a little more to it than that, particularly the part about how they “identified where his strengths were in the strike zone.” That’s not always right down the middle, you know; in fact, according to Baseball Savant, Altuve is only hitting .220 this year on pitches right down the pipe. Do remember, though, that Altuve’s height makes his ‘down the pipe’ just a little different, as Jeff went into detail on last year.
Take, for example, this still from the 2013 Milwaukee game:
Look at how far off the plate he is. That hasn’t really changed in the 2014 clip. He doesn’t stand close to the plate, but he clearly doesn’t have the kind of long arms that are going to allow him the kind of plate coverage a more traditionally-sized player would have.
One would think that pitches in would be more to his liking. According to our swing percentage heat maps, one would be right:
Altuve always liked to swing at the low and inside pitches; now he really does, and he’s doing so with a swing motion more conducive to success. “Swinging at the right pitches” can mean different things for different players. At 5-foot-6, Altuve is about the most different player there is. While he’s not likely a true-talent 6 WAR guy for years to come, especially as the BABIP drops and pitchers adjust to his new approach, we can at least see that there’s some real changes. This isn’t just luck or a hot streak, most likely. As the Astros continue to improve, Altuve is no longer the guy who was good just because nobody else was. He might actually be good.
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