Jose Altuve’s Evolution to MVP Candidate

Perhaps we ought to have have written more about Jose Altuve at FanGraphs this season.

The last, and only, FanGraphs post dedicated solely to Altuve this year was published on Aug. 4, when the excellent Craig Edwards documented Altuve’s historic July and his MVP momentum.

Perhaps part of the reason there hasn’t been an avalanche of Altuve content is this: what more is there to say? Altuve is really good. We know he’s really good. One thing that has remained constant in this rapidly changing world is the sight of Altuve spraying line drives all over major-league outfields. He remains one of the best pure hitters in the sport, one who added power to his game beginning in 2015 and whose power spiked again in 2016 and 2017. Altuve is going to get his 200 hits, he’s going to make contact at an elite rate, and he’s going to defy the expectations created by his small stature.

Altuve has become so good, so steady, we — or, at least this author — generally turn our attention elsewhere to new trends, pop-up players, air-ball revolutionaries, etc.

But Altuve himself is evolving. He’s making gains as a power hitter (as you’re probably aware) and in other areas that are perhaps less obvious. And Altuve demanded our attention on Thursday afternoon in the Astros’ ALDS opener, recording three home runs, including two off of Chris Sale.

While the Astros and Altuve will obviously take the performance, it’s the kind of day that could have perhaps swayed MVP voters had it occurred a week earlier. It’s remarkable that the game’s largest man, Aaron Judge, and smallest, Altuve, are the AL MVP frontrunners and have produced nearly the same value despite occupying completely opposite ends of the physical spectrum.

Altuve’s first home run was remarkable, coming on an elevated 97 mph fastball from Sale.

His next plate appearance against Sale concluded very similarly. In the fourth inning, Altuve once again ripped a fastball over the left-field wall for a home run.

The Houston second baseman struck again in the late innings, taking a forceful hack at an offspeed pitch from rookie Austin Maddox

Altuve has always been an excellent contact hitter, posting 90%-plus zone-contact rates and single-digit swinging-strike rates, but it’s how he has improved against the fastball, driving it with more authority, that has propelled him from batting-crown contender to MVP candidate.

Consider Altuve’s work against fastballs in 2013, a season in which he posted an overall isolated-slugging mark of .080. It marked the fourth time over his first four years in the league that he’d posted a .112 or less (data courtesy Brooks Baseball):

And then consider Altuve’s work against fastballs in 2017:

Altuve has clearly become a better fastball hitter. That shows up in the Pitch Info linear weights, too, where Altuve has gone from recording slightly above-average numbers against the fastball earlier in his career to elite ones over the past few years. He ranked 15th in the sport by that measure this season.

Altuve has expanded the size of the area where he damages fastballs, too. Consider Altuve’s slugging per fastball in 2013, back before he started adding a power element to his game.

And then consider his slugging per pitch and location in 2017:

It’s expanded. He’s doing more damage out over the plate. Is the juiced ball playing a role? Perhaps. But this is also a hitter who looks more geared for power at times.

OK, I promise, we are through the GIF-and-chart portion of the post.

Altuve is one sample, one loud bit of evidence, that a good hitter can learn to develop power. Altuve wasn’t trying to hit singles up the middle against Sale, he was taking healthy hacks. He has undoubtedly learned how to translate more power into his game.

But what’s also interesting is that Altuve has improved against fastballs even as the average fastball velocity he has faced has increased. The average fastball Altuve faced in 2013 traveled 92.7 mph. This season? 93.5 mph. So the time allotted to Altuve between the pitcher’s release of the ball and his own decision to swing has decreased, yet his performance against the pitch has improved.

Altuve is perhaps also evidence of how hitters are adapting against fastball velocity. It was research from former Driveline Baseball intern Anthony Brady that I found so interesting in a piece last month, this idea that hitters are not actually making conscious choices when deciding if or when to swing against elite velocity. Rather, a sort of muscle memory takes over. It’s something akin to a refined, automated process.

Wrote Brady:

“It is believed that the brain assesses and understands the information about the pitch coming in (spin, velocity, and trajectory), makes a deliberate decision whether to proceed with the swing, and then decides upon a location to place the bat all while the pitch is on its way to the plate. While the human brain has the capability to work incredibly fast, it can’t quite work that fast. The perception-action coupling theory when applied to hitting argues that information is not necessarily “understood”; rather, it is detected (the hitter sees the baseball pitch coming in), and then affordances are perceived (your opportunities for mechanical action, swing/no-swing). The information is not really ever understood, and there is no deliberate decision to swing. Much like a computer program algorithm, the visual stimuli are perceived and a physical action output is generated based on that environmental perception.”

Perhaps Altuve has become a better fastball hitter because he’s an elite eye-hand athlete who has seen so many fastballs that he’s added neural bandwidth. Maybe that’s at the root of how good hitters add power, how good hitters become MVP candidates.

Altuve has always been a curiosity, a marvel, due to his lack of size. He’s lately become unquestionably great. He’s also perhaps shedding some light in how hitters adapt, evolve, and improve, about what allows the smallest player in the game to become one of its greatest stars.

We hoped you liked reading Jose Altuve’s Evolution to MVP Candidate by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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southie
Member
southie

He’s only 27 and has over 1200 hits with great overall offensive statistics. With Robbie Alomar being inducted we could be seeing the makings of a HOF career here.

tz
Member
Member

Ditto that. I like the last point in this article, which emphasizes how important it is to get as many reps as possible at the big league level to lock down your base line performance. After his first few years in the majors, Altuve had locked down how to consistently square up major league pitching. And because he was still very young, he was able to grow into a much more dangerous version of himself.

Definitely a HOF level start to be career.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I was going to say “no way he’s as good as Alomar” and then I looked back wow, Alomar did not have as an incredible career as I remembered.

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=860&position=2B

I think I always remember Alomar’s two insane 3-year peaks (first three years in TOR, three years in CLE) and conveniently forget the years in which he was “just” a really good player. And I keep thinking of Alomar’s million gold glove awards and was surprised to see what his defensive score showed.

The level of production at Alomar’s two peak eras are about the same as what Altuve has done the last four years on a season-rate basis. If Altuve keeps putting up 5+ WAR seasons (big if) and keeps up the ironman thing (even bigger if) he’ll easily surpass Alomar in both peak and career WAR.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Looking back using modern metrics with highly questionable data is not a good way to judge a career. If you thought Alomar was great back then – well, nothing has changed. He was great and I agree with you. He was a force in all facets of the game.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

highly questionable data? it’s a hell of a lot better than trying to remember how much I was impressed by a guy on TV 20 years ago…

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Disagree. If you were impressed, then you were impressed – I don’t question that at all. I believe that knowledgeable humans are the best suited tool to judge baseball greatness – that is what we are trying to teach machines to do. Imagine the data going into those “defensive metrics”. It is probably TV broadcasts from the 90s processed by a machine in the best case. In the worst case, it is far worse than that.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Is this logic bedrock? Just down votes beyond this point I guess.

bosoxforlife
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Member
bosoxforlife

At least you get an up vote from me. When I see defensive WAR on a player who played in the 30’s I wonder where in the world it comes from. You are polite to call it highly questionable, total garbage is closer to the facts. Even today the defensive metrics are very questionable, When the leading systems, UZR and DRS, cannot come close to agreeing on a player as obviously great as Nolan Arenado there is still much to be done.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Thanks for the support. I know there are a bunch of up votes buried in there, but they don’t show up for anything. A truly negative comment would have 5X the down votes, especially when it is part of a string of comments on a weekend article. At this point it may well be 40 up and 50 down or something like that. A single reply gives the point some legitimacy, which as far as I know is very legitimate.

People don’t want to think critically about metrics, which is ironically how progress is made. I don’t understand why people blindly flock to an unproven theory and even more so why they defend it. it feels like politics more than discussion. A lack of discussion will ensure a lack of progress on these metrics. It is troubling to me that a progressive community attempts to limit discussion, but I think I get where it comes from.

tz
Member
Member

Ronnie – I upvoted your comments on this thread on the basic principle that downvotes should come from either rudeness in the comment or obvious trolling.

I also think you’ve brought some substantive food for thought into this discussion. There was an exceptionally good article in the Community section a few years back, where the author argued about the need to remember that today’s “common knowledge” could be rendered foolish-looking by future progress in our analysis of the game. He specifically cited the treatment of catcher framing, which had once been pooh-poohed by many in the sabercommunity but later was demonstrated to have value that could be measured and also shown to be consistent with the “eye test”.

I’ll see if I can find that article and I’ll link it.

bosoxforlife
Member
Member
bosoxforlife

It took me awhile to return to see the response to my response to your comment. I agree that any questioning of that deity, sabermetrics, brings an avalanche of down votes. I have been a strong believer in statistical analysis of baseball since the days of Earnshaw Cook in the 60’s, but I attempt to temper that with the eye test and performance. That is not allowed by the crypt keepers. This kid runs like the wind, has a great arm and can hit the ball 500 feet, is all they see, but he can’t ever hit it, hello Bubba Starling. Rhys Hoskins, you weren’t one of our chosen few so go fly a kite. Sometimes I question the number crunchers on this blog and I know the response that will follow. I enjoy when a player overcomes the bias placed on him if he isn’t a high draft pick. Even though I am obviously a Red Sox fan, Goldy has become a favorite of mine. The early scouting reports on him were blistering attacks on his limitations. Couldn’t field, slower than the tortoise, and those were the good things. On the other hand I wonder what supposedly knowledgeable baseball executives are thinking when they hand out huge contracts to many marginal or over the hill players and the list is long. It is hard to tell which is worse but I offer you Pujols, Ellsbury, H. Ramirez, Sandoval, and many more but my favorite, as of now, is Chris Davis, but it should be spelled with K. My present desire is to see a team bunt into the shift every time it is deployed and see what the results would be but that may be too much to ask.

Travis L
Member
Member
Travis L

You don’t think to look it up? Then you’d be able to evaluate how much you believe its validity.

John Autin
Member
Member
John Autin

I think Alomar was a great all-around player and worthy HOFer. But it’s interesting how he skates right past some things often used in HOF arguments, like the “black ink test,” MVP voting, and “was he ever seen as the best in his league?”

Alomar’s only league-high offensive stat was runs, once. He was never close to leading in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+ or bWAR; he was 2nd in SB twice, but he never swiped 60, which was done 25 times during his career. Never close to an MVP Award (best mark was 3rd in a highly divided vote).

He was a very good offensive player, but the times sure helped his numbers. If you rank him against the other 140 guys who had 5,000 PAs during his career, Alomar is #55 in OPS+, #60 in OPS, #43 in OBP, #20 in BA.

@3_2count
Member
Member

Three more 5 bWAR seasons puts him right near the JAWS standard. Three more 6 bWAR seasons puts him above it.

He’s definitely on track.

carter
Member
carter

I mean there are few players under 30 outside of Trout who have a better shot imo

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

Which of the following milestones can he reach?
3000 Hits (with >.300 career BA/>.800 OPS)
500 2B
250 HR
1500 R
1000 RBI
400 SB
50 WAR
250 GDP(?)

SubmarineSailor
Member
SubmarineSailor

Hits, 300BA, 500 2B, 1500R, 50 WAR, and mayyyybe 1000 RBI and 250 GDP. I don’t think he’ll get the HR, and I’m not confident he’ll run enough after the next few years to get to 400 SB.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

He is on the right track. Longevity is king though. I don’ think there is any reason to be too skeptical about Altuve going forward, but it is the fluky stuff that derails careers.

I would not compare Alomar to Altuve though. Alomar is the best defensive 2B I have ever seen. That’s why he is in the HOF – he was an elite defender and a good stick. He had lots of big moments in the playoffs and he also won a couple of rings, which shouldn’t matter much but it does with voters.

I can’t help but think that Pedroia is a better comp. I hate comps in general though… The road for an offensive 2B is tougher as you start running into Jeff Kent and company. He’s got my vote as of today though. I like Altuve a lot, but unless you rack up insane counting stats, you are at the voter’s mercy. What he really needs is the WAR formula (or whatever they are using when he is eligible) to align with his career and that is a guessing game. Machines don’t give him much credit for defense and many a career has gotten thrown away for racking up negative defensive value over the backside of a career. Isn’t is crazy to think that Altuve’s prime could just get brushed off by someone in the future who didn’t even watch him play, pointing to how poor his X (something that doesn’t even exist today) was? I see it every day and that is why I try to point it out, which is typically a lost cause.

Great season, Jose! I don’t know what the future holds for you, hopefully it reflects your current greatness.