Jose Altuve’s Strike Zone

When I was in middle school, my favorite joke was: “Three guys walk into a bar. The fourth one ducks.” It scored well with my friends. I enjoyed the twist, the simplicity and the imagery. Unlike most of the other things I liked when I was in middle school, I’m not ashamed of this one today. My tastes, though, have changed. If I had to pick my favorite joke now, for example, I’d say it is one of two things. It’s either any joke told by John Mulaney, or it’s the fact that my Firefox spellcheck suggests replacing “Altuve” with “altitude.” It’s funny because it’s true.

Jose Altuve is remarkable simply because he’s a major leaguer. There aren’t a whole lot of those, and there are fewer still with Altuve’s promise. But among major leaguers, Altuve isn’t outstanding. He’s fine — and he’s very young — but people figure he’s better than he is because of the team he plays for. He looks better in context. If Altuve is widely known, it’s only in part because of his talent; more, it’s because he’s so little. The most notable thing about Altuve is the whole major-league thing. The second-most notable part about Altuve is that, for a major leaguer, he’s short. For a non-major-leaguer adult, he’s short.

Officially, Altuve measures 65 inches. Unofficially, he doesn’t, but we don’t have those measurements so we have to use what we’re given. No player in baseball has measured fewer than 65 inches since 1956. Since then, five players have come in at 65 on the nose: Altuve, Freddie Patek, Al Montreuil, Albie Pearson and Fritz Brickell. Brickell and Montreuil barely played, which puts Altuve in even more limited company. By official measurements, he stands an inch shorter than David Eckstein, and I feel like I have to repeat that Altuve, in reality, is not that many inches tall. In fact, he might be the shortest player in decades.

That means a few things. Obviously, it hasn’t meant enough to keep Altuve from the majors, so we know he possesses exceptional ability. The majors look for great talents, so despite the height, Altuve must be able to hit for contact or power or both and he must be able to play a position. He seldom swings and misses, he’s got 14 career dingers and he can cut it at second base. So far in his career, he’s been worth about three wins above replacement, and he turns 24 next May. The Astros like Altuve enough to have given him a four-year contract.

So where does height come into play? Where is it a direct factor? The answer is the strike zone, because, at least in theory, the zone’s dimensions depend on each batter’s physical specifications. Altuve’s zone, therefore, ought to be particularly small. This is particularly fascinating to me. I’ve written about it before, but not for more than a year, so I thought I’d re-visit. I’d like to take a look at Jose Altuve’s called strike zone.

PITCHf/x operators assign batter-specific strike-zone borders every game. Obviously, nothing changes horizontally, but there are different vertical edges depending on each hitter. This season, the average lower edge of Altuve’s zone has been about 1.3 feet off the ground. The average upper edge of Altuve’s zone has been about 2.8 feet off the ground. These are low dimensions, as you might expect.

I thought I’d compare Altuve to Alex Rios, because the data show Rios appears to have one of the tallest assigned PITCHf/x strike zones. This season, the average lower edge of Rios’ zone has been about 1.8 feet off the ground. The average upper edge of Rios’ zone has been about 4 feet off the ground. That’s an upper-edge difference of more than a foot. So how have things actually been called? Here are Altuve’s and Rios’ called strikes for 2013, with approximate zone boxes included:

altuverios

For Rios, there’s not much near the upper edge, and there are some strikes below the lower edge. For Altuve, the zone hasn’t dropped low, but we see an awful lot of strikes above the upper edge. Altuve is short, but umpires have called his zone as if he isn’t as short as he actually is. There’s a difference between the Rios zone and the Altuve zone, but just eye-balling it, the difference doesn’t seem big enough.

For fun, here are 2013’s five highest called strikes with Jose Altuve at the plate, in descending order:

5

altuve5

4

altuve4

3

altuve3

2

altuve2

1

altuve1

The league average is that about 7% of pitches out of the umpire strike zone are called strikes. This is going off the zone as it’s actually called, as opposed to the zone in the rulebook. Here’s where Altuve has checked in since he debuted in the bigs:

  • 2011: 12%
  • 2012: 12%
  • 2013: 12%

Altuve has more balls called strikes, and there’s no sign of any umpire adjustment. Altuve also has a slightly below-average rate of pitches in the zone that are called balls. Umpires are calling Altuve’s zone bigger than it ought to be, and it’s pretty much entirely because of the high strike. To most hitters, a pitch at the letters is an automatic ball. With Altuve, there’s doubt.

This is probably what we ought to expect. In theory, the zone changes for every batter. In reality, umpires are accustomed to calling a certain strike zone. They have a mental idea of what strikes look like, so it’s tricky to take into account batters of unusual heights. Ask any umpire and he’ll tell you the zone gets smaller with a shorter batter, but it’ll be hard to make sure it gets short enough, because the idea of the zone is embedded. The reality of the short hitter is new information. It presumably works the same at both ends. Smaller batters will have more high strikes. Taller batters will have fewer high strikes and more low strikes. It’s just hard to appropriately customize a strike zone to each hitter on the fly, because humans have limitations and pitches go fast. When Altuve walks up, umpires know he’s the shortest player in baseball. When a pitch is thrown to Altuve and taken, the umpire quickly compares it to pitches he’s seen in the past, which were thrown to taller hitters.

So, in a sense, Altuve is at a disadvantage. His actual strike zone takes up a greater amount of his body. It also just isn’t the ordinary strike zone — it’s shifted up. But then, this didn’t become the case simply upon his promotion to the majors. Altuve, I’m guessing, has always been little, which means he’s always had  to deal with this. Umpires are human, and the umpires calling balls and strikes now are theoretically the world’s best. Altuve has made the majors despite how his zone is called, and this should be more or less the zone he’s used to. He’ll still have disagreements with pitches at the extremes, but Altuve must understand that his zone isn’t as small as the rulebook says. That’s unlikely to change.

And? In his career, Altuve has put 137 pitches above his rulebook zone in play. Within that sample, he’s posted a .328 BABIP. That’s better, even, than his overall BABIP. Jose Altuve is a regular in the major leagues, and in order to pull that off, he’s had to overcome considerable disadvantages. In the field, he can play a bigger man’s position. At the plate, he can make do with a bigger man’s strike zone. No, Altuve isn’t great, and he might never be, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that you know who Jose Altuve is. And, really, that’s the most amazing thing.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Hojam23
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Hojam23
2 years 10 months ago

great article!

Matthew
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Matthew
2 years 10 months ago

He should use a Jeff Bagwell stance just to confuse the umpires even more

Brad Johnson
Member
Member
2 years 10 months ago

My iPhone 3 spell check suggests replacing “Jeter” with “heterosexual.” Occasionally I’ll even accept the change to see how my friends react to Derek Heterosexual.

Hobbes
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Hobbes
2 years 10 months ago

I’m a Giants fan so I frequently have to deal with ‘Pablo sand castle’

David
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David
2 years 10 months ago

Bring on the robot umps!

Hobbes
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Hobbes
2 years 10 months ago

many times this

Catoblepas
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Catoblepas
2 years 10 months ago

I for one quite enjoy how much Jeff emphasizes that everyone playing in the major leagues is absolutely, unbelievably, amazing at what they do, and it’s only once you compare them to the other people who are disgustingly talented that you start to get a sense for “good” and “bad”. Thanks Jeff!

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 9 months ago

As a counter, I am amazed at how terrible players can be at specific parts of the game yet still appear in the majors – like Jesus Montero’s base running. How can a player be so terrible at an aspect of the game and still play in the majors? He must be legitimately amazing in some other way. Not that that statement applies to Montero – but I’m sure he’s amazing at some parts of the game compared to schmucks like you and me. Just not on the baserunning component. Like, some amount of readers reading this comment could outdo Montero on the basepaths. That’s probably a rare thing to see.

http://www.lookoutlanding.com/2013/2/15/3994128/jesus-montero-seattle-mariners-running

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
2 years 10 months ago

I met Ozzie Smith face to face back in the 90’s when he visisted the Naval Hospital where I worked. I’m 5′ 11″ and I was surprised how much shorter he was than me although he is listed as 5’11”. If a player can play, why not list the true height and weight?

The Stranger
Member
2 years 10 months ago

I suspect it’s because old-school baseball people (including, most likely, a lot of fans) still gravitate towards players who fit the mold. If I were Altuve’s agent, I’d be pushing to add a few inches to his listed height, just because somewhere out there is a front office that will offer more money to a player at 5’5″ than 5’3″ (or whatever he really is). The Astros front office is probably happy to play along to keep Altuve happy, improve the trade value of their guy, and keep people from second-guessing them for signing a midget. The same logic goes for big players – a 240 lb. slugger is great, but a 270 lb. player is a knee injury waiting to happen. And a 170 lb. player won’t consistently hit for power, no matter how many dingers he had last year. Yes, a routine team physical will reveal the true measurements, but there are potentially millions of dollars riding on these things, so there’s every incentive to game the system a bit.

gnomez
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gnomez
2 years 9 months ago

There wasn’t a player on my high school team listed under 6’1″. I’m 5’9″ generously and was taller than two of them.

Sean
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Sean
2 years 9 months ago

You wanna know what’s better? When Altuve was in the minors, he was listed at 5’7″. They actually lowered it when he hit the majors.

David
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David
2 years 10 months ago

If the issue is simply the umpires having an ingrained strike zone they call wouldn’t we expect the lower end of Altuve’s strike zone to be higher than it should be? Obviously you just provided called strikes but I’d be interested in seeing how frequently pitches are called balls against Altuve in the bottom half foot of his zone.

Dino
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Dino
2 years 10 months ago

I can see how Altuve’s strike zone is larger than it ought to be. I wonder though if his having an objectively smaller zone overall (in terms of, for example, overall square feet, as opposed to relative to his height) still gives him an advantage. For example, would it be tougher for pitchers to locate in a smaller zone, or to get their pitches to break how they want them to given that they have less room to work with?

lewish
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lewish
2 years 9 months ago

I too, find it refreshing Jeff’s approach to bringing to light the amazingness of major leaguers. Too often, people just look at good or bad, but the amount of work, and sacrifice of the least ‘successful’ major leaguer is humbling and more so when looked at on a back drop of the amazing talent that could not find a way to thrive at even lower levels let alone that level…it is truly to be appreciated that level of play.

Vince
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Vince
2 years 9 months ago

One of our stock arguments at work involves someone saying Gerald Laird/Brandon Inge/Don Kelly “sucks”. I played college baseball, which means I was way better than the vast majority of HS players. Well, guys who flame out in A-ball are way better than me, and so on and so forth. I usually start with “Gerald Laird is better at baseball than anyone you will talk to today has ever been at anything.”

BenRevereDoesSteroids
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BenRevereDoesSteroids
2 years 9 months ago

In his career, Altuve has put 137 pitches above his rulebook zone in play. Within that sample, he’s posted a .328 BABIP. That’s better, even, than his overall BABIP.

Probalbly because he has been dealing with that strike zone for his entire life. I would imagine that is just the way he had to learn to hit.

MGL
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MGL
2 years 9 months ago

“Smaller batters will have more high strikes. Taller batters will have fewer high strikes and more low strikes.”

This is fascinating! It makes perfect sense and if you would have asked me how it would turn out I probably would have guessed something similar. But, I have never thought about before, and I have never heard anything about it before.

This definitely gives taller players an advantage. The upper part of the strike zone, if it is above the belt, is extremely hard to hit especially when the pitcher throws hard and has a “rising” fastball. I wonder if pitchers take advantage of this. They should clearly throw more high fastballs versus shorter players and less high fastballs versus taller players!

“In his career, Altuve has put 137 pitches above his rulebook zone in play. Within that sample, he’s posted a .328 BABIP. That’s better, even, than his overall BABIP.

Probalbly because he has been dealing with that strike zone for his entire life. I would imagine that is just the way he had to learn to hit.”

Oooh, BABIP is such a POOR indication of success for pitches in the borders of the strike zone! We have to know how many pitches he takes for strikes and for balls! On any borderline pitch, if a batter only swings at the ones he really likes (for whatever reasons – he is anticipating that pitch, it is not so borderline, etc.) but lets a lot of them go for strikes, then he could have a very high BABIP but in reality have a poor success rate versus those pitches. The only way to measure how well a batter handles any pitch is to include balls and strikes!

This is true when we look at swing and miss percentages too! I have read so many articles about how a pitcher’s pitches are good because they generate so many swings and misses (or the opposite) or how a batter is good or not based on his swings and misses. Like BABIP, swings and misses are NOT a good indication of anything. You have to include takes in the same sample of pitches. Some batters and pitchers will experience lots of balls in those takes and some will experience lots of called strikes. That makes a huge difference in terms of the effectiveness of the pitch or the batter on those pitches…

scraps
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scraps
2 years 9 months ago

Freddie Patek once hit three home runs in a game. That season he hit five.

Brendan
Member
Brendan
2 years 3 months ago

I just stumbled on this article looking at Altuve’s player page, and I have to say that it is really, really fantastic. That’s all.

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