As I mentioned Wednesday, I'm starting a little series on some of our rookie hitters, where I look at their seasons so far through the eyes of Pitch F/X data to see how they are being pitched in the big leagues. This isn't going to be the most scientifically rigorous Pitch F/X study you've seen, because I'm not going to be ascertaining how good the pitches were, just what each batter was thrown and where those pitched ended up.
To start off, we're going to look at Jose Altuve, who has quickly turned into a fan favorite here in Houston. Let's review a couple of things about him that we already know. First, his modest walk rate in the minors has plummeted into almost nonexistence in the majors. He's not striking out particularly much, but he has been slumping lately. Also, because of his size, we've heard talk that pitchers are trying to challenge him with fastballs to see if he can't catch up.
After the jump, we'll start by looking at his pitch chart to see just what he's been thrown this season...(Thanks to Texas Leaguers for providing the data).
One thing is clear. Altuve has been thrown mostly fastballs and has seen almost 60 percent of his total pitches as either fastballs or sliders. Add in those two seam fastballs and that number rises to almost 75 percent. But, if you look at this chart, you'll see that Altuve doesn't just swing at the first fastball he sees. Despite being thrown almost 70 percent strikes on those fastballs, he swings less than 50 percent of the time.
The other thing that should jump out at you is the sheer number of strikes Altuve has been thrown. Yes, he does swing at a lot of pitches, but he's also been thrown a lot of strikes. As big league pitchers try to challenge him, what's he supposed to do? Not swing when the ball is in the zone? I know his outside zone swing percentage we looked at Wednesday is higher than league average, but I'd also wager those strike percentages are much, much higher than league average. For that reason alone, we shouldn't worry as much about his walk rate dropping in the majors. He's just being pitched much differently than he was in the minors.
Where is he hitting the ball, though? Let's look at his spray chart.
That's a fairly even spray chart, though Altuve has has some notable trouble thus far getting hits to fall in to the opposite field. Still, he's showing signs of balance as a hitter. However, we still need more info, as there is a difference in spray charts from right-handers and lefties.
Here are the two broken down by handedness, with righty first and lefty second:
His sample size is still relatively small, so we don't know much about him against left-handers yet. But, there is a bit of evidence to show he hits well against lefties, as he turns on their pitches and drives them up the middle so far. Against right-handers, he's shown similar luck, both pulling the ball to left and hitting it the opposite way to right. If you wondered about his bat speed, all those hits to left should allay those concerns a bit.
Still, we need to know more. How has he done against those fastballs? What's he doing on first pitches? Is he able to lay off high strikes? After all, if he is truly a free swinger like Vlad, shouldn't he be going after those too?
As you can see, he does swing at high fastballs, but he's also thrown a lot more of them. If we're projecting here, it looks like Altuve does a pretty good job laying off the high heat and swinging more at balls in the strike zone. Yes, those are high in said strike zone, but he can't change that unless he starts hammering those for line drives.
For an even better look at how he's done, here's the chart of fastballs he's laid off of.
That's very, very good strike zone judgement. When Altuve doesn't swing, chances are, that ball is either being taken totally, or it's out of the zone. Look at all those pitches up in the zone he laid off for balls. That's the most encouraging sign for me that he's still got the patience to post a walk rate around 8 percent.
Still, there is no question Altuve has fallen off in recent weeks. While I'm loathe to look at data in such a small sample size, we can maybe get something out of looking at the overall chart:
The above numbers are since August 15. If anything, the amount of fastballs and curves Altuve is seeing has only risen since then. He's also seeing a ton more strikes on all categories and still isn't swinging at those high fastballs (look at his swing rate there). If anything, his recent struggles can be pinned to contact problems against the slider. That pitch has increased in frequency and Altuve is pouncing on it. He's putting the slider into play 41 percent of the time, but most of them are being pulled to the left side of the infield for easy groundouts. If he can just up his batting average on those balls in play or make a little better contact against the slider, he'll get back on track.
We really need more data to figure out how teams are pitching Altuve, but I can give you a quick scouting report:
Fastballs, fastballs, fastballs. High and away.
Sliders low and away.
Throw it up in the zone if you can.
That seems very consistent with what my eyes tell me when Altuve is batting, doesn't it?