The problem with being really good at your job is that people expect you to remain really good at your job, and when your performance dips from “world class” to merely “above average,” it can sometimes feel like a crisis. Montgomery Scott understood this.
Six weeks into the 2018 season, José Altuve must as well. By any reasonable standard, the 2017 AL MVP is having an excellent season. He’s leading the AL in hits, just as he has every year since 2014. He’s batting .315/.370/.418, which is good for a 123 OPS+, and while he’s not among the American League’s bWAR leaders so far, he’s on pace for about a six-win season. That’s in line with the numbers Altuve put up in 2014 and 2015—both seasons in which he was an All-Star and received MVP votes. But he was still a couple of big adjustments away from becoming the player he became in 2016 and 2017, when he was for my money the best non–Mike Trout position player in baseball.
But while Altuve’s playing like an All-Star, his performance is by no means Troutlike. His 120 wRC+ is just eighth among qualified second basemen and 67th out of 172 qualified hitters across all positions, and while Altuve’s usually right underneath Trout on WAR leaderboards, like a remora on a shark, the Houston second baseman is just 28th in bWAR among position players thus far this year.
Two things stand out about Altuve’s slow start: First, after hitting 24 home runs in each of the past two seasons, he has just two through 41 games, which would put him on track for about eight dingers over the course of a full season. Second, after coming off a string of six straight 30-steal seasons, he has only two so far this year. From 2012 to 2017, only Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon had more stolen bases than Altuve.
So why isn’t Altuve running more?
For starters, stolen bases are down leaguewide: MLB teams are averaging half a stolen base per team per game in 2018, the lowest mark since 1972, and it’s not because nobody can run anymore. Mike Trout, for instance, stole 49 bases in his first full year in the majors and could steal 50 bases a year if he wanted to. So could Altuve (who swiped a career-high 56 in 2014 but hasn’t broken 40 since), Francisco Lindor, or Mookie Betts. And yet they don’t, which is annoying from an entertainment perspective but strategically defensible.
The break-even point for stolen base success rate is somewhere in the low 70 percent range, because losing an out and a base runner is more detrimental to an offense than gaining one base is helpful. Therefore, a high-volume base stealer who steals 50 bags at a break-even rate isn’t as valuable as someone who steals 15 or 20 bases a year at a success rate close to 90 percent. Teams are even more afraid of throwing away outs with a good hitter at the plate: When Altuve stole 56 bases, he spent much of the season hitting in front of Chris Carter, who was less likely to advance him or drive him in than Carlos Correa is. With Correa at the plate, the reward is less enticing and the risk greater.
And despite being a team with so much speed, Houston as a matter of course doesn’t turn games into track meets. Last year, the Astros were eighth in MLB with 98 stolen bases, but Altuve alone was responsible for 32 of them. And on an individual level, several fast Astros are just bizarrely terrible at stealing bases. George Springer, touted as a potential 30-30 man throughout his youth, topped out at 16 steals in 2015, but since then he’s just 14-for-33. Derek Fisher and Jake Marisnick, two players I’d describe as “outrageously fast,” are a combined 64-for-89, or just 72 percent, for their careers.
It’s also a matter of choice. Correa is probably one of the league’s slower shortstops, but an average runner overall at worst, and he attempted just three stolen bases in 2017. Meanwhile, Phillies left fielder Rhys Hoskins, whose name is a couple of letters away from spelling “rhinoceros” and who has a body to match, has attempted five stolen bases through mid-May of 2018.
Trout and Correa both demonstrate the other argument against stealing bases aggressively: It’s dangerous. Both players suffered hand injuries last year while diving headfirst. Altuve’s a feet-first slider, so he’s not going to sprain his thumb, but he could sprain an ankle just as easily or bounce his foot off the base and be called out on replay after beating the tag. Moreover, stealing a base is about the most physically punishing thing a position player has to do: It requires instant acceleration from a standstill to top speed, and then rapid deceleration from top speed back to a standstill, all in the span of about three seconds and 80 feet. And Altuve isn’t a kid anymore. At 28, he’s entering the phase of his career when he can’t take for granted that he’ll be able to play 155 games a year at full speed. This could just be Altuve choosing to pick his battles as he gets older.
But while Altuve’s shyness on the base paths is annoying for fantasy owners, it’s not a critical issue for the Astros, who need him to hit .341/.403/.539 (his 2016-17 averages) more than they need him to steal 30 bases a year.
Last year, the Astros posted a collective team OPS+ of 127, tied with the 1927 Yankees for the highest in MLB since 1901. This year, while the starting rotation is putting up dead-ball-era numbers, there’s buzzing low-level anxiety among Astros fans about the offense, particularly at home: The Astros are hitting just .221/.296/.357 at Minute Maid Park, and their home wRC+ of 84 is 26th in MLB.
Some of the panic is due to the Astros running afoul of Scott’s Law of Inflated Expectations: The Astros aren’t literally the best-hitting team in living memory this year, but they’re eighth in runs scored per game and in wRC+. And while Altuve’s “struggles” are representative of Houston’s general offensive backslide, they aren’t the whole story. Marisnick, who had a breakout year in 2017 with a 122 OPS+, has struck out 39 times against one walk in 83 PA this year. Marwin González (.233/.316/.338) has regressed from a four-win 2017, Evan Gattis (.210/.275/.320) is getting old, and Fisher (.182/.214/.455) is still figuring out big league pitching. Yuli Gurriel (.398 SLG) is only recently back from a hamate bone injury, which can sap a hitter’s strength for up to a year.
But what of Altuve? Is he being pitched differently? Is he back to being a slap-and-run guy?
After two years of Altuve taking their lunch money, you’d expect AL pitchers to adjust, but there hasn’t been an identifiable aggregate adjustment so far this season. Here’s Altuve’s zone profile from the 2017 season:
And here’s where pitchers are throwing to him in 2018:
The book on Altuve still looks the same: pitch him low and away (which, as an aside, feels a little mean for a hitter who’s only 5-foot-6). Altuve’s also seeing almost the same pitch mix: In 2017, he saw about 57 percent hard pitches, 31 percent breaking balls, 11 percent off-speed; in 2018, it’s 58 percent hard stuff, 30 percent breaking balls, 13 percent off-speed. And even if the location and type of the pitches Altuve’s seeing had changed substantially, I’m not convinced it would matter. Altuve has a near-Ichiro-level hit tool, and with his compact swing and freakish hand-eye coordination, a pitcher could throw a pineapple at him and he’d wait on it and figure out how to lance it into the gap for a double.
Crucially, there’s no evidence that Altuve’s suffered some critical damage to his hit tool or batting eye:
José Altuve’s Walk, Strikeout, and Contact Rates, 2017-18
All of Altuve’s plate-discipline numbers are within a couple of percentage points of his 2017 numbers, all variances that can be explained away by noise this early in the season. The only puzzling thing about Altuve’s underlying 2018 numbers is that if anything, he’s hitting the ball harder.
José Altuve’s Underlying Contact Rates, 2017-18
|Season||LD%||FB%||GB%||Soft Contact%||Medium Contact%||Hard Contact%|
|Season||LD%||FB%||GB%||Soft Contact%||Medium Contact%||Hard Contact%|
Altuve is also pulling the ball substantially less than he did in 2017 or in any year since 2013. A pulled fly ball might end up in the Crawford Boxes, while a ball hit at the same speed and launch angle to center field could end up as a double or even a routine fly out. Only 4.3 percent of Altuve’s fly balls in 2018 have turned into home runs, down from 14.6 percent in 2017 and 13.0 percent in 2016. Again, that doesn’t mesh with the harder contact he’s making this year, but it does explain the lower homer total so far.
If Altuve’s 46 fly balls this year had left the yard at the same rate as the previous two years, Altuve would be on pace for 26 home runs, give or take. If everything else about Altuve’s 2018 season stayed the same but he’d seen five deep fly outs go over the fence, he’d be hitting .345/.398/.539—in other words, almost exactly the same slash line he put up in both 2016 and 2017. Last year, Altuve hit 31 fly balls that Statcast registered as either “solid contact” or a “barrel.” Of those 31 fly balls, 19 (61 percent) turned into home runs, and another seven (23 percent) turned into outs. This year, Altuve’s barreled or made solid contact on eight fly balls, of which two (25 percent) left the yard, while five (63 percent) turned into outs. Maybe that’s the result of some unknown phenomenon that impacts Altuve’s HR/FB ratio but no other part of his offensive game. It’s just as likely that his slugging percentage is down because he’s drinking too much coffee.
But all things considered, Altuve’s home run shortage looks like a total fluke. And if that explanation isn’t convincing, remember that Altuve’s 2017 MVP campaign really only took off in July, when he hit .485/.523/.727 in 23 games. At this point last year, Altuve was hitting just .298/.367/.458, albeit with five homers and nine stolen bases in 11 attempts.
Altuve’s power outage, while worrisome in a vacuum, is another example of baseball’s frustrating propensity to throw out weird results in small samples, even when the process behind those results remains the same. If Altuve is still slugging .418 in July, this question will warrant another look, but until then, he’s one hot week from putting his power numbers right back where everyone expected them to be.
Stats are current through Saturday’s games.