Out of the many differentiae that make up José Carlos Altuve’s thumbprint on baseball, from his 5’ 6” stature, to getting cut from his first tryout with the Astros but showing up the next day anyway, his groundball percentage would likely not rank toward the top for most fans of the Venezuelan. However, most of said fans have not seen this graph.
As you can see, after decreasing his rate consistently for four seasons, Altuve is hitting more groundballs and hitting more balls toward right field in 2017 than at any other point in his career. Although this is in a sample of just 88 plate appearances, and may be a statistical blip, I think that with a hitter like Altuve it is worth investigating.
Altuve’s BABIP is also a high, even for him, .393. Apart from being the most satisfying stat to say out loud, BABIP is also the one thing that alters early-season statistics more than any other, but .393 for Altuve isn’t like the clearly unsustainable .455 that Steven Souza Jr. is currently running. It’s just .044 points higher than his last season rate, so while it’s probably not sustainable (DJ LeMahieu led the league in BABIP last year at .388) it’s not lifting him to his 134 wRC+ by itself.
So what’s the reason for this? Is it a change in approach? A reaction to what other teams are doing? Teams don’t appear to be shifting Altuve, so it doesn’t look like he’s trying to beat them by hitting grounders through an open hole. It does, however, look like maybe teams are attacking him down and away slightly more than in the past. Here are Altuve’s heat maps the last two seasons.
There does appear to be a slight uptick in balls in the bottom corner of the zone, but it’s hard to call it a novel trend when the basic strategy against Altuve since he came into the league remains basically the same: down and away.
But the story doesn’t end there! There are two things that do appear to be starting a trend.
First, his Zone% (meaning the percent of the time that opposing pitchers throw him a strike) has been consistently trending downward since he came into the league. It’s currently at 46% according to Trackman, which is the lowest mark of his career.
Second, his Fastball%, according to Baseball Info Solutions, is at 49.7%, which is also a career low, and actually over 8 percentage points lower than the rate he’s seen in his career.
Now, this all makes intuitive sense. Altuve’s power has risen in recent seasons, and it looks like pitchers have adjusted accordingly; no surprise there. What I thinks is worthwhile in all this is that Altuve is adjusting right back. Before this past weekend in Tampa Bay, Altuve had no home runs on the year. He’s been going with what pitchers have been throwing him. They want to throw him offspeed down and away, and he’s been going with it, exchanging some of the power he took last year to keep his overall offensive profile as one of the league’s elite hitters.