José Altuve, Pocket-Sized Hit Machine

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José Altuve’s bat makes a unique sound when it connects with a baseball. Rather than the thunderous thunk of a Giancarlo Stanton bomb, Altuve’s lumber emits an oddly satisfying click as it comes in contact with the ball; like a key turning an antique lock, or the sound of a crisply struck 7-iron.

And yet, despite the differences in sound, the results of these hits are not much different. On paper, Altuve should not be able to compete with the likes of a Giancarlo Stanton or Chris Davis in the power department. After all, he’s a 5’6” second baseman weighing a measly 170 pounds. And yet, here we are; the diminutive second baseman has cranked 19 home runs and added 32 doubles in a ballpark that is best described as hitter-neutral. Much like fellow American Leaguer Mookie Betts, José Altuve is displaying power numbers more in line with someone of far greater stature.
Despite posting incredible numbers from virtually the moment he entered the big leagues, Altuve’s journey to this point was anything but easy. He has overcome doubtful coaches, along with critics of his height and ability, on the way to becoming one of the MLB’s finest players.

It would be hard to imagine a successful athlete in any sport that has been doubted as much as José Altuve has been doubted. Born in Maracay, Aragua, Venezuela in 1990, Altuve worked hard on his game from a young age. He quickly blossomed into a talented player, flashing quick wrists, speed, and an ability to hit to all fields. At age 16, he received a tryout with the Houston Astros at their Venezuelan academy. Altuve, along with multiple other raw Venezuelan prospects, worked out for the scouts, but was sent home with the rest, as none of them showcased preternatural talents upon first appraisal. But Altuve wasn’t done with his chance. The “head honcho” of the Astros scouting group, Al Pedrique, was not able to attend the first workout, but had made plans to attend a second workout the next day. Despite not receiving an invitation to return, Altuve showed up to the next day’s tryout anyways. Pedrique liked what he saw, and Altuve was invited back, despite the hesitancy of many academy directors.

Altuve got his chance, albeit it largely because of his own perseverance and refusal to call it quits. He impressed Pedrique during the second workout session, and, despite the protests of multiple other Houston scouts, was offered a contract and a chance to prove himself further.

“I went there and I told him, ‘Hey, I’m not asking you for big things. I know I won’t have like a big signing bonus, just let me play.” – José Altuve

Though Altuve’s performance as a part of the Houston farm system is tough to criticize, it was seemingly never enough to appease the Astros’ scouts. “Really, the little guy?” became the slogan of Houston executives at each rung of the baseball ladder that Altuve climbed. If he were 6’2” and 210 pounds, he would have reached the major leagues in the fraction of time he actually took. But Altuve never complained or felt sorry for himself – instead, he allowed his frustration to fan the flames of his competitive fire.  

After a long and successful journey through the minors, the Venezuelan finally ascended to the big leagues in 2011. He burst onto the scene in solid fashion, batting .290 and stealing 33 bases in his first full major league season. Altuve has improved every season since then, culminating in a truly remarkable 2016 season in which he looks primed to win the batting title, and likely the American League MVP.

Though Altuve had a strong 2015 season, nearly every notable statistic has undergone a quantum leap between 2015 and 2016. He leads the MLB in hits, while hitting for a .365 average with 19 home runs, 74 RBIs, and a 168 wRC+. Heck, he has a .208 ISO and slugs .573 as a 5’6” second baseman! You would never guess that he deals with a much larger strike zone than every other hitter.

Altuve offers arguably the most tantalizing combination of contact and power in baseball. His short-but-sweet swing allows him to maintain consistently solid contact, while a few other tweaks have helped him add a power element to his hitting arsenal. One such tweak was the addition of a small leg kick to kick-start his swing prior to the 2015 season.

Here’s Altuve’s swing in 2011, during his first year in the majors:

Here’s Altuve’s swing in 2015 after the addition of the leg kick:

Notice the difference? Though he doesn’t view the movement as a true leg kick, his self-described “early step” allows Altuve to start thinking about whether to swing at pitches earlier, in turn allowing him to recognize pitches more quickly and be more selective of the pitches at which he actually swings.

Being more selective about the pitches he swings at has played a large role in the Venezuelan’s power surge. Because he makes contact on nearly 90 percent of his swings, taking less-than-optimal pitches allows Altuve to wait for the best pitch to drive for power.

“Sometimes, early in the count, they throw you offspeed pitch or something, and you wish you could have missed that and not put the ball in play,” – José Altuve

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a pitcher facing José Altuve. Where do you locate your pitches? There’s a good chance you’re an entire foot taller than the bat boy-sized player standing in the batter’s box, so you’re already dealing with a shrunken strike zone. Assuming you’re not Jered Weaver and don’t throw 80 mile-per-hour meatballs down the heart of the plate, you have essentially three options: 1.) Pitch him inside, 2.) Pitch him outside, and 3.) Don’t throw him anything to hit, but risk walking him.

Let’s start with option 1. If you pitch him inside, well… You don’t want to pitch him inside. Take a look at the chart below.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.30.45 PM

Altuve has a greater than .400 ISO against pitches across nearly the entire inside third of the plate. That’s entering Giancarlo Stanton vs. a left-handed pitcher territory, and ranks among the very top of the league.

So you don’t pitch him inside. That leaves the outside corner – which is safer – but still far from safe. Altuve’s high contact rate, along with an ability to hit to the opposite field, allow him to maintain a high average on outer-third pitches.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.31.39 PM

Altuve doesn’t hit pitches out of the strike zone particularly well, so pitching around him is probably the safest option from a damage control perspective. However, as he has become more disciplined in his pitch selection he is more of a threat to walk, nearly doubling his career walk rate to about 10 percent of this season’s at-bats. And when he walks, there’s a good chance he adds to his 26 steals and takes second base as well.

Here’s the icing on the cake: Altuve is batting .397 against fastballs this season. Right off the bat, the most effective pitch of most major league pitchers becomes a major liability when thrown to the Astros star. How the hell do you get this guy out?

“He absolutely demolished us this series. He’s got a magic wand. There’s no way to get him out.” – Stephen Vogt, Oakland Athletics Catcher

I would make the American League MVP case for José Altuve, but I don’t think I have to; he’s already done the job for me. Along with earning the American League’s second-highest WAR at 6.3, he leads the league in batting average, on-base percentage, wOBA, wRC+, and virtually every other hitting statistic imaginable. Amazingly, the shortest player in the MLB trails only the hulking David Ortiz in slugging percentage. And as we say goodbye to Big Papi this season, José Altuve stands – just about a foot shorter – already proving that the little guys can pack quite a punch, too.

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