Jose Altuve, The Little Engine That Could
Standing 5'6", Jose Altuve is the shortest batting title champion since Wee Willie Keeler hit .385 in 1898 (Altuve is a giant compared to Keeler who was 5'4", 140 lbs). Can the smallest of the small in Altuve back up his historic season with another monumental effort in 2015?
A MAGICAL SEASON
A look back before we look forward with Altuve:
Altuve led baseball with a .341 batting average.
Altuve led baseball with 225 hits, 25 more than anyone else (Michael Brantley).
Altuve was second in baseball with 56 steals (Dee Gordon had 64).
Altuve had 47 doubles, the third most in baseball (Jonathan Lucroy had 52, Miguel Cabrera 52).
Add it up and Altuve is the first player with 225 hits, 56 steals and 47 doubles in a season since... Ty Cobb in 1911 (248, 83, 47). Altuve and Cobb are actually the only two players to ever pull off the trifecta.
BATTING AVERAGE: WHAT LIES AHEAD?
Altuve has no power. The seven homers he hit were a career best. It would take a minor miracle for him to reach 10 homers, something akin to a god reaching down from Mount Olympus and bestowing the power of Hercules on Altuve. I don't think Altuve would be able to fill out the tunic. He also doesn't drive runners in, being that he hits atop the Astros' order. In three seasons, he's never recorded 60 RBIs while averaging 56 runs batted in the last two years. A run producer he ain't.
Altuve scored 85 runs last year, a career best, to give him a three-year average of 76 runs a season. Anyone would take 85 runs scored from just about any player and certainly their second baseman. It should be noted, though, that Howie Kendrick scored 85 runs as well and the 85 runs both scored were behind other second-base eligible players like Brian Dozier (112), Anthony Rendon (111), Ian Kinsler (100) and Dee Gordon (92). Hard to consider a guy an elite producer in runs when four other second baseman scored more times. Let's just say Altuve is a strong run scored performer and leave it at that.
It's the other two categories—batting average and steals—that truly set Altuve apart in 2014.
Altuve hit .276, .290 and .283 in his first three seasons. As I've already mentioned, he hit .341 last season.
Altuve hit .335 before the break and .349 after it.
Altuve hit .319 against righties and .414 against lefties (career .347).
Altuve hit .339 during the day and .342 at night.
Altuve hit .366 at home and .318 on the road.
Altuve hit .372 indoors and .320 outdoors.
Those are some big numbers. “So why the sad face, Ray?”
(1) Do you know how many players in the 21st century hit .341 in back-to-back seasons? The answer is two: Barry Bonds (2002-04) and Todd Helton (2003-04).
(2) Altuve had posted BABIPs of .302, .321 and .316 his first three seasons, a very consistent set of numbers. In 2014, the mark jumped to .360. Which one is the outlier? It's almost certainly the 2014 mark.
(3) Altuve never walks. In his three full seasons, he's walked 40, 32 and 36 times. The fact is that when you swing at everything and don't take a free pass more than once every four games, it is virtually impossible to consistently produce a hit every third at-bat. Here are the men who have hit .325 the past five years and their walk totals:
2010: Josh Hamilton 43, Carlos Gonzalez 40, Miguel Cabrera 89, Joe Mauer 65
2011: Miguel Cabrera 108, Adrian Gonzalez 74, Michael Young 47, Jose Reyes 43, Ryan Braun 58, Victor Martinez 46, Matt Kemp 74
2012: Buster Posey 69, Miguel Cabrera 66, Andrew McCutchen 70, Mike Trout 67
2013: Miguel Cabrera 90, Michael Cuddyer 46
2014: Altuve 36, Victor Martinez 70, Michael Brantley 52
Being fleet of foot to beat out grounders certainly is a huge key in producing a high batting average, but recent history is pretty clear on this count. Of the 20 seasons with a .325 batting average the last five years, Altuve's is the only one in the 30s in terms of walks. The other 19 seasons, batters averaged 64 walks.
(4) Despite the .341 average, nothing really changed in his batted ball distribution.
2014: 22.8 line drive rate, 47.5 ground ball rate, 29.7 fly ball rate
Career: 21.8 line drive rate, 49.7 ground ball rate, 28.6 fly ball rate
(5) Let's take a look at his plate discipline by looking at his swing results.
He swung at 37.4 pitches outside the strike zone in 2014. His career mark is 36.1 percent.
He swing at 51.6 percent of pitches in 2014. His career mark is 49.1 percent.
He hit 94.9 percent of the pitches he swung at inside the strike zone (career 95.1).
He had a 91.1 percent contact rate on all swings (career 89.4). Let me ballpark all of that for you... Nothing really changed, yet his average went up .055 points.
(6) In 2013, Altuve had a 4.8 percent walk rate. In 2014, that number was 5.1, a hundredth over his career rate. Also, take note of this. In 672 plate appearances in 2013, he saw 2,207 pitches. In 707 plate appearances in 2014, he saw 2,200 pitches. Shockingly close.
Moreover his .377 OBP is a bit deceiving. Why? Here are the differences between his batting average and OBP from season to season.
2012: .290/.340 for a difference of .050 points
2013: .283/.316 for a difference of .033 points
2014: .341/.377 for a difference of .036 points
Career: .302/.340 for a difference of .038
Sorry, but there really wasn't any appreciable growth with Altuve last year to support the significant batting average increase, which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that a repeat ain't coming in the batting average category and that's significant for many reasons.
THE STOLEN BASE: WHAT LIES AHEAD?
Being that Altuve doesn't know how to take a walk, the loss of hits could damage his OBP significantly. Less hits will lead to fewer times on base and a lowering of his runs scored outlook (duh). As importantly for the fantasy game, fewer times on base will hurt his ability to, wait for it, steal bases.
Altuve is speedy. Maybe he honed that talent when he was hiding from the kids who were trying to stuff him in a locker when he was a kiddie? Still, what he did last year certainly wasn't expected.
Altuve stole 33 bases in 2012. Altuve stole 35 bases in 2013. Altuve stole 56 bases in 2014.
Altuve was caught 11 times in 2012. Altuve was caught 13 times in 2013. Altuve was caught nine times in 2014.
Altuve stole 20+ bases more than the previous two seasons and saw a decrease in his caught stealing total. In 2012, Altuve had a 75 percent success rate (33 steals in 44 attempts). In 2013, Altuve had a 73 percent success rate (35 steals in 48 attempts). In 2014, Altuve stole 56 bases. He averaged 46 steal attempts in 2012-13, remember. His success rate rose to 86 percent. (A) Do you believe he will run that much again in 2015? (B) Is it fair to think his stolen base success rate will remain as high as it was in 2014?
Baseball HQ developed a measure called Stolen Base Opportunity Percentage, which is an approximation of how often a runner attempts to steal a base: (SB+CS) / (BB+singles). Let's see how the number changed in 2014:
2012: 27 percent
2013: 28 percent
2014: 32 percent
That's not a crazy increase by any means, but it is, again, an increase to a pretty high level.
Altuve won't hit homers. Altuve won't drive runners in. Altuve will score runs, but with the near certainty that his OBP will recede, he's not entirely likely to match his runs scored mark from 2014. It's rather unlikely that Altuve will get a hit every three at-bats in 2015 or steal 50+ bases again. It's quite likely that Altuve will be overdrafted as people look backwards instead of forwards.
If the average falls to .302, his career mark, he will still be a strong performer, but paying an elite price for a .302 hitter who has averaged six homers, 49 RBIs, 76 runs and 41 steals the last three years might not be the best use of your funds in 2015, because the odds certainly support the position that Altuve won't be able to reach all five of those numbers again in 2015.