On August 6, José Altuve did something he’d never done before: He got ejected from a major league game.
In the seventh inning of a 3–2 loss to the Rangers, the Houston second baseman took strike three from Jeremy Jeffress, then turned around to argue the call with home plate umpire Alan Porter. Astros manager A.J. Hinch couldn’t quite get out of the dugout in time to stop Porter from sending the four-time All-Star to the showers.
“He knows the strike zone as well as anybody,” Hinch said, “and he didn’t appreciate the call. … He never argues unless he’s right, and he was right, in my opinion.”
The ejection came back to haunt the Astros when Altuve’s replacement, Marwin González, grounded out to end the game with the tying run on first base. But the thing that got Altuve ejected has also turned him into one of the best two or three players in baseball this year.
“The pitches I’m swinging at now are strikes,” Altuve said. “If you try to swing at a ball outside the zone, sometimes you’re going to hit it hard, but most of the time you’re not.”
What Altuve’s doing this year is beyond the reach of almost every other big league hitter, and he’s doing it, more or less, because he woke up one morning and decided to.
Two years ago, Altuve was jumping to foul off balls thrown over his head:
Through his first four seasons, this was Altuve: not particularly choosy about what he swung at, but able to make contact with pretty much anything.
At 5-foot-5 — though now listed at 5-foot-6 — Altuve stood out enough to earn nationwide notoriety despite playing for an Astros team that banked three straight 105-loss seasons and an infamous 0.0 local TV rating more than once. He was the star of a series of photographs alongside 6-foot-8 A’s first baseman Nate Freiman, and he inspired the creation of an eponymous unit of distance.
Among the 335 players who logged at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2011 to 2015, Altuve ranked no. 305 in walk rate (5 percent) and no. 49 in swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone (35.4 percent). That version of Altuve was still a very good player: From 2011 to 2015, he ranked seventh in batting average (including a batting title in 2014), 10th in hits, and fourth in stolen bases. He was also the 17th-hardest player in baseball to strike out.
Altuve, who Houston signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2007, was the first contributor to emerge from the Astros farm system during a rebuilding process that was unprecedented for both its scope and its brazenness, and he became the face of the franchise almost by default. But with former no. 1 pick Carlos Correa’s promotion and Dallas Keuchel’s Cy Young campaign last year, it looked as if Altuve would fade into a secondary role in the completed Astros product, like Bernie Williams for the late-’90s Yankees or Jimmy Rollins for the late-2000s Phillies.
After making their first playoff appearance under GM Jeff Luhnow last year, the Astros struggled to overcome a 7–17 record this April to fight back into the playoff race, but after they closed to within 2.5 games of division-leading Texas on July 27, they’ve fallen all the way to 64–60, 8.5 games back of Texas and 3.5 games out of the wild card. But Houston has that slim chance of making the playoffs only because Altuve has blown past Correa and Keuchel and dispelled any notions of him becoming a supporting character.
In fact, Altuve’s blown past just about everyone, joining Mike Trout at the head of the AL MVP race.
Some of it’s the same old Altuve. He’s leading the American League in hits for the third straight year, and his .366 batting average is the best in baseball by 18 points. He’s on pace for his fifth straight 30-steal season, and he’s the third-hardest hitter in baseball to strike out. But some of it’s new.
“Coming off the year he had last year and the year before, when he won the batting title, he came in this year and he wanted to work harder,” said Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick. “He said, ‘I’ve got things I want to fix in my swing,’ and we all looked at him like, ‘You’re crazy.’ Then he comes in and he’s doing what he’s doing this year.”
He’s leading the American League in on-base percentage at a .429 clip, and he’s following up his previous career-high 15 home runs from 2015 with 20 home runs and counting. Altuve was one of the game’s best contact hitters early in his career, but this year he’s been one of the game’s best hitters, period. His wRC+ of 172 is the highest mark in baseball, and he’s nearly doubled his walk rate from 4.8 percent to 9.3 percent, which gives him the sixth-best walk-to-strikeout ratio in baseball. He set a new career high for walks … in the Astros’ last game before the All-Star break.
“The game is evolving, and I wanted to go with the game,” Altuve said. “Right now, people look at OPS, OBP, that kind of stuff. Mostly I used to hit for average, but not too many home runs, not too many doubles, so I felt like I could get better.”
Gone are the days of Altuve coming out of his shoes to chop at pitches over his head. While he was once among the freest swingers in the game, Altuve’s now in the middle of the pack (87th out of 157 qualified hitters) in swing rate on pitches outside the zone.
“I think my adjustments were more mental than anything else,” Altuve said. “When I showed up to spring training, I tried really hard to swing at good pitches, and that’s been the key for my season, just trying to lay off borderline pitches, put the ball in play.”
Altuve’s eye for the zone was always there — no matter how little you walk, you don’t win a batting title if you can’t tell a ball from a strike — but Altuve’s newfound selectivity is paying off in unexpected ways.
Players who don’t hit for power often struggle to draw walks, even if they don’t swing at balls out of the zone. Most notably, Washington Nationals outfielder Ben Revere might have less power than any regular position player in baseball, and he consistently finishes near the bottom of the league in walk rate despite being one of the most selective hitters in the game. Early in his career, Altuve certainly suffered from Revere’s disease; if a pitcher’s not afraid to make a mistake in the zone, he’s got no reason to throw the ball out of the zone four times in seven pitches.
In 2015, Altuve altered his batted-ball profile. He used to be a prototypical slap-and-run hitter, but last year, he posted a career-low 1.33 ground ball-to-fly-ball ratio and a 45.3 percent pull rate. That’s more like a power hitter’s profile, particularly in Minute Maid Park, where right-handed hitters can practically reach out and touch the left-field foul pole. It’s also an approach that sacrifices batting average for power — fly balls are more likely than ground balls to go for extra bases, but less likely to become hits, particularly for someone as fast as Altuve. His BABIP dropped 31 points from 2014 to 2015, and he failed to defend his batting title, but he also set new career highs for home runs and isolated power.
Altuve’s inflated walk rate this year might have something to do with pitchers reacting to last year’s power surge, but he says the causal arrow points in the other direction: If you wait for a better pitch, you’re going to make better contact.
“I think when you hit for power, you have to have strength,” Altuve said. “But I think most of the time, no matter who hits the ball, if you hit it on the barrel, it’s going to carry. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to swing hard, not trying to over-swing the bat. I just want to put the barrel on the ball.”
That’s underselling it. Altuve’s beating seven shades of shit out of the baseball this year. His line drive rate is a career-high 27 percent, up from 18.1 percent in 2015. His hard-hit rate is 34.9 percent, up from 25.9 percent in 2015, despite basically the same ground ball–fly ball splits and spray chart as last year.
We’ve wondered about whether or not Ichiro should’ve hit for power, but in 2016 Altuve is basically showing us what it would’ve looked like if he had.
Growing that much in one offseason no doubt requires a lot of work, but Altuve pretty much just flipped a switch. That he can hit .366/.429/.581 at his size, with a strikeout rate around 10 percent, speaks to limitless potential for a player who, despite playing in his fifth full season, is still only 26.
“I’ve been playing with him for so long you don’t think anything’s out of his capability,” said Marisnick, who’s been with Houston since mid-2014. “He gets up there and he’s one of the few guys in the game you almost expect to do something awesome. This is a tough game and he almost makes it look easy.”
Altuve is one of those rare athletes who can spend an offseason working on one particular skill, turning a weakness into a strength or adding a new tool without taking away from what made his game work in the first place. In this case, Altuve’s new tool turned him into a monster, and he’s already starting to think about next offseason’s project. Altuve mentioned his defense (which has improved over time, but still rates as slightly below average by FRAA) and baserunning (he’s led the American League in caught stealing twice) as parts of his game he can refine.
“I feel like I can get better,” Altuve said. “I can go out there and keep improving my game. I feel happy with what I’m doing, but I never feel completely satisfied.”
So what’s next?
Altuve chuckles. “We’ll see.”