Jose Altuve Might Actually Be Good Now

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)

Name Team AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Ian Kinsler Tigers 0.307 0.344 0.486 0.362 128 3.6
Jose Altuve Astros 0.344 0.385 0.448 0.366 135 3.0
Brian Dozier Twins 0.235 0.350 0.422 0.345 119 2.9
Chase Utley Phillies 0.293 0.353 0.450 0.347 121 2.7
Daniel Murphy Mets 0.303 0.353 0.418 0.339 120 2.6

…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.

Year BB% K%
2011 2.1 12.4
2012 6.3 11.7
2013 4.8 12.6
2014 5.8 6.3
Total 5.2 11.1

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.

altuve_2013

Ugly. Now, another randomly selected June plate appearance in Houston, but this time from 2014:

altuve_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:

altuve_mil

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_swing

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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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


36 Responses to “Jose Altuve Might Actually Be Good Now”

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  1. tz says:

    I’m mesmerized by the GIF of Harang pitching to Altuve. The size disparity makes it look like they’re 80 feet apart instead of 60’6″.

    Nice article BTW.

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  2. WSoxFan22 says:

    This article feels wrong; I’m not sure how you can discredit Altuve from being a 6 WAR player going forward. It appears that your biases from before the season still seep through into your opinion of Altuve today.

    As you noted, Altuve is 24 years old and has showed significant improvement in his game; to assume that his improvement won’t continue for the next several years (given that a players prime is typically between 27-30)is a reach. It seems from the outside that you aren’t willing to relinquish the fact that you thought Altuve was overrated before and now that he has done one hell of a job disproving that belief of yours, you still are discrediting him to an extent. Although the sample size remains small, Altuve has proven he can hit for a very high average once he adjusted to the level in the minors and it appears he is having the same results in the big leagues.

    I think Altuve being a 5-6 WAR player going forward into the prime of his career is something that is very possible and, frankly, I’d consider it likely.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      “to assume that his improvement won’t continue for the next several years (given that a players prime is typically between 27-30)is a reach”

      Might you not also say it’s reach to simply assume that it WILL continue?

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      • WSoxFan22 says:

        Possibly but I think based on his previous improvement at the minor league level from year to year, and the significant strides his game has taken this year, that it is more likely that Altuve ascends further than it is for him to descend. His K/BB rate being the most significant and important improvement in his game. He’s putting 7% more balls in play this year than years past; it would appear that he also learned to play within his abilities and talent which is a major hurdle for young players who try and do to much.

        By the way, I thought it was a good piece in general; just thought you “shorted” Altuve a bit. I’m not an Astros fan by any means, but I love to watch Altuve play. One of the most underrated improvements in his game this year is base running; if you watched ‘Tuve the previous two years he was stealing bags based on his speed along with average technique. This year he has a better understanding of what pitch to run on, and he has gotten a better read on pitchers. His technique on the bases might be the best in baseball; which is saying something given Hamilton and Gordon’s base running abilities.

        I just feel that it is apparent that Altuve works his butt off, and usually with hard work comes improvement in the game of baseball; as long as it is accompanied by confidence.

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        • Mike Petriello says:

          Yes, I did want to touch on his baserunning. Then I realized I had already written 1600 words, or way too many Altuves.

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    • evo34 says:

      Players don’t peak at age 27-30 on average.

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      • WSoxFan22 says:

        Says who?

        I used the data to look at several different aspects of player performance from the general to the specific. Overall, I found that both hitters and pitchers peaked around age 29. However, some skills peaked earlier and others peaked later.

        That is an excerpt from Baseball Prospectus looking into peak ages about 3 years ago. They had the average peak age at 29, which would make your peak years from 27-31. While other skills may peak earlier; for example, k-rate for a pitcher, in general the peak age of all your skill sets will be around 29 years old; unless you have something viable to counter my point.

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  3. WorstToFirst says:

    Good article. I agree his swing changes and K/BB rates are the big reasons behind his improvement. Another factor, which is difficult to measure, but still helps I think is the fact he has some actual hitters around him now. Hitting in front and behind guys like Springer, Fowler, Singleton, and Castro have to help.

    There was a stretch last year where Altuve hit cleanup just for the simple reason of “who else?”. Beyond hitting cleanup, he also hit 3rd a lot which left him out of place as well. Now he’s mostly hit in the 1-2 holes this year which caters more to his natural traits of just trying to sting the ball somewhere and get on base. I’d guess he felt he had to do too much and be someone he wasn’t while hitting 3rd/4th.

    It’s hard to measure comfort in the lineup but I think that plays into his success at least a little.

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  4. Belloc says:

    The article is better served without the videos, because the swings in both videos are prime examples of lousy swings.

    The swing against Badenhop isn’t fair to use as an example of Altuve’s swing in 2013. Because if that is a typical example, Altuve would not be playing Major League Baseball. In fact, he probably woldn’t even be able to hit rookie ball pitching. That swing is simply a product of a hitter being in a defensive, two-strike mode and getting fooled by a nasty slider. Even phenonmenal hitters like Miguel Cabrera occasionally get fooled and have absolutely ugly swings. But all-time great hitters like Cabrera have the ability to consistently lay off pitches that fool them, and hope that the pitch will be called a ball.

    In contrast, in the second video Harang throws a flat two-seam fastball belt high down the middle of the plate, and Altuve is not fooled by the pitch. However, Altuve does not permit the ball to travel deep in the hitting zone. Instead, Altuve’s hands get too far from his body, he reaches out, and he hits the ball in front of home plate. And that’s why he hit a routine ground ball to the shortstop, instead of crushing a meat ball served up by Harang. Altuve pulled off the pitch, and his hands rolled over. Ted Williams described this swing as a “push swing.” This is not the way to hit .350.

    The swings in both videos are crappy swings. And if the second swing is indicative of Altuve’s habits – as opposed to a break-down that is contrary to the norm – then we can be almost certain his batting average will plummet as the season progresses. He can’t rely on his speed to bail him out on routine grounders to infielders on the left side.

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  5. If we’re trusting the projections, preseason ZiPS had Altuve at 1.8 WAR in 680 PA. Taking the ROS projections and prorating them to the same 680PA, it sees Altuve as a 3.1 WAR player (Steamer is a bit more pessimistic). The regression is coming mostly in the form of a reduced (but still above-average) BABIP and slight increase in K%. What we’re left with is an above average hitter with good baserunning and average defense at second base, I think the 2.5-3.5 WAR range is a pretty reasonable estimate for Altuve’s “true talent” over the next few seasons.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      I can get on board with that. I don’t see him as being ‘the best second baseman in baseball.’ Or he shouldn’t be, anyway. As I typed that, i realized that Cano, Pedroia, Kinsler, Utley, Phillips, etc., aren’t getting any younger.

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  6. Brian says:

    Your link to the article at Crawfish Boxes is broken. You’re welcome!

    Good article!

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  7. subtle says:

    Unless he’s been possessed by the spirit of Tony Gwynn, I don’t think this K rate holds (and certainly not the BABIP)

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  8. Mr baseball says:

    Mookie Betts is even smaller

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  9. Houston says:

    There is another thing that is helping Altuve that I don’t think was mentioned. Hitting coach John Mallee has gotten Altuve to only accept two pitches, fouling off all others. He is able to do this due to his excellent hand eye coordination, which is the best that Mallee has ever seen. I think this definitely helps his BABIP, which would mean less regression.

    (I got this info from an article on The Crawfish Boxes’, the Astros’ SB affiliate.)

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    • George Resor says:

      Altuve is actually fouling off the ball less often when he makes contact. Prior to this season when Altuve made contact he fouled the ball off 40.1% of the time. This year when he makes contact he is fouling the ball off 39.3% of the time. The only reason you see Altuve fouling off more pitches is because he is making contact with more pitches.

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  10. Cordwainer says:

    Fine article, Mike. Altuve’s now a terrific ballplayer, jockey-sized or not. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see him accrue 5+ WAR per year over the next half a decade. Remember, he *killed* the horsehide throughout his minor league career, from his age 16/17 season in Venezuela (.343 with an OPS 170 points above the league) to the Appy League two years later (.324/.408/.508) to the Cal & Texas leagues two years after that (combined .389/.426/.591).

    A prospect analyst at another site very recently said that Altuve “emerged kind of late” but that’s of course complete B.S., a textbook example of an evaluator covering his backside with revisionist hogwash. What in fact emerged late — multiple years late — was the awareness within the scouting community that little bitty Altuve was going to be a solid MLB player.

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  11. arc says:

    “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”

    What is the point of even saying this? I get that you hype up your guy. I get that you might even really, really like your guy. But there’s simply no way he genuinely believes that, right?

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  12. Andy says:

    Is Altuve the best pound for pound player in baseball? If Manny Pacquiao could play the game, is this what he would look like?

    If a flood of Biblical proportions suddenly hit the state of Texas, and all you had was a small boat of limited capacity, wouldn’t he be the first player you saved?

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  13. Andy says:

    On a somewhat more serious note, don’t small players benefit from a smaller, harder to locate strike zone? If Altuve developed a crouch a la Rickey Henderson, would he have a strike zone?

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    • Schuxu says:

      The strike zone is not defined by stance but by your proportions when you swing. So a pre-swing crouch should not effect the zone.

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  14. John C says:

    A very young player, brought to the big leagues before he was fully ready because his team was desperate for anyone who could play anything resembling respectable major league baseball. Now he’s having a breakout season at age 24. That’s not a shocking development. It happens.

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    • Ian R. says:

      No, it’s not a shocking development. It is, however, an interesting development. Plenty of very young players brought to the big leagues before they were fully ready (for whatever reason) have washed out.

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  15. J says:

    Getting Jimmy Paredes away from the Astros has also been a key factor.

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  16. Schuxu says:

    In comes Chris Young and his 5 K/9 and strikes him out twice.

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  17. hobbes020 says:

    Another thing to keep in mind is the contract he signed last year is looking better and better:
    2014 24 Houston Astros $1,250,000
    2015 25 Houston Astros $2,500,000
    2016 26 Houston Astros $3,500,000
    2017 27 Houston Astros $4,500,000
    2018 28 Houston Astros *$6,000,000 $6M Team Option
    2019 29 Houston Astros *$6,500,000 $6.5M Team Option

    Though regression is probable, he can regress by a big margin and still be worth this in a big way through the prime of his career. If some of these are improvements he can hold onto or even stay close to the ‘new’ version of himself (K%), then he is worth this in spades.

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