“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” J.R.R. Tolkien
By most accounts, Jose Altuve did not have the most impressive debut for the Houston Astros on Wednesday. The 21-year-old second baseman stepped into the void left by Jeff Keppinger‘s move to San Francisco and… well, he didn’t fill that void. Aggressive in each of his at-bats, he went one for five with a strikeout. The fact that he was in the major leagues at all was a bit of an upset, however: Altuve is only five foot seven, and perhaps generously listed as such.
With the Astros not headed to the post season and looking to see what they have for the future, Altuve is in line for at least 200 plate appearances the rest of the way. The team is likely to give him enough leash to finish the year no matter how he fares. Only 22 middle infielders that were his height or shorter have ever accomplished that feat in their first year. But how did those comp players fare at the plate? And how did those numbers compare to the general middle infield population? That might help us manage our expectations for the diminutive one.
Sort for middle infielders, 67 inches or shorter, and with 200 plate appearances in their first season, and you don’t receive a collections of who’s whos. Only three players managed an OPS over league average, and all three did so before 1919, back when baseball was different and shorter. The group averaged an 80 OPS+ and a batting line of .250/.313/.312 overall. That they didn’t have much power might not be surprising given their stature, but there wasn’t much else they were bringing to the table either.
Compare that to the general population for our study, and you’d think they came up short. All middle infielders that debuted with at least 200 plate appearances put up a 77 OPS+, however. Their .251/.310/.334 line shows that whatever advantage the average infielder might have had over his smaller counterpart in power they gave up slightly in on-base ability. The tighter the strike zone, the easier it is to take a walk, right? We’ve seen Bradley Woodrum tackle this subject recently, but Altuve is no three-foot-six Lilliputian. He’s only marginally shorter than the average American, and so he’d only benefit marginally from a smaller strike zone.
Let’s look at tall players on the infield – six foot two or taller. Now we’ve got 21 players, about the same as our short list. Oof. They had a 66 OPS+ on average by hitting .238/.288/.321 on average. Not pretty, even if Yunel Escobar, Alexei Ramirez, Jhonny Peralta and Michael Morse have figured it out since. Let’s try to zoom out a little too, by asking for 200+ PAs in seasons one or two of the career. Short: 83 OPS+, .251/.318/.317. Tall: 74 OPS+, .249/.299/.346. All: 78 OPS+, .253/.311/.339. The same mini-trends hold: shorter players have a tiny boost in on-base percentage, and tall players in slugging. With power being the tool that develops latest, perhaps it’s no surprise that the “baseball short” players debut with a minuscule advantage over the taller players.
Look at the list of first-year debuts among short players, and a few names might leap out of the fray: Phil Rizzuto, David Eckstein, Freddie Patek and Bip Roberts. Roberts might be the best comp. He walked in 9.2% of his at-bats in the minor leagues, and Altuve in 8.4% of his. Altuve had a .154 ISO on the farm, Roberts a .110, though, despite their similarity in strikeout rate (Altuve 11.8%, Roberts 11.9%). Still, add a tiny bit of power to Roberts and you might have Altuve. Roberts managed a .294/.358/.380 line in 12 seasons, and if you add a little power to that you’d be even happier. Especially if Altuve manages to put up a similar 14.5 WAR in his first (arbitration-controlled) six seasons.
With only 153 plate appearances above Double-A, we’ll see if Altuve’s bat is ready to play with the big boys even if it hasn’t spent a ton of time on the farm. Size may have a little something to do with his chances. Being short might give you the tiniest of boosts to your walk rate and make you a little less likely to have power. If Altuve can use that boost to achieve a league-average walk rate while retaining his league-average power, he has the chance to be one of the better short middle infielders we’ve seen.