The smallest player in baseball could very well provide the biggest boost to Houston's offense.
In April of 2011, I traveled an hour or so into the desert to watch Lancaster take on the Stockton Ports. My eye immediately turned to the diminutive second baseman. It was impossible not to watch Jose Altuve; he never took a play off. He never took a pitch off. He never took a second off. Solid hit tool, good glove, and a motor that never quit.This was a baseball player.
By the end of that same season, the 21-year-old Venezuelan, generously listed in the program as 5'5", had jumped past Triple-A and right onto the big league roster. A year later, he was the sole representative of the Houston Astrosin the All-Star Game. Entering this season, he's one of the few sure things on Bo Porter's Opening Day lineup card.
Let me take you back to July 2011, when Altuve had just been promoted to the majors, skipping Triple-A altogether. This is what John Sickels wrote about Altuve then:
He's just 21 years old, and normally a player that age with these kinds of numbers would be all over prospect lists. But Altuve is a small guy, listed at 5-7, 170, in reality he's more like 5-5. He's a good athlete, with average speed but terrific instincts on the bases. Although he's not a walk machine, he makes contact, shows surprising power to all fields, and seems to have few weaknesses at the plate, laying off pitches he can't hit and punishing mistakes. He has plenty of bat speed and is not easy to overpower, contrary to the stereotype for smaller players.
Altuve is also a more-than-solid defensive player at second base, unusually reliable for his age. He doesn't have the range for shortstop, but his arm is strong enough that the Astros have given him some innings at third base. He plays with polish and enthusiasm, and scouts love his makeup.
None of these attributes have changes. Let's break it down, shall we?
...a good athlete, with average speed but terrific instincts on the bases: In his first full season in the majors, Altuve had a BsR of 4.2. He stole 33 bases and was caught 11 times (I'm no mathematician, but I'm pretty sure that's a 75% success rate.)
...he's not a walk machine: In 2012, Altuve posted a below-average walk rate of 6.3%.
...he makes terrific contact: Altuve flashed an above-average Contact% of 90.7% in 2012.
...shows surprising power to all fields: Altuve's ISO of .109 in 2012 wasn't great, but it was a marked improvement over his first taste of the big leagues in 2011.
...laying off pitches he can't hit: Altuve had a BABIP of .321, meaning that of the balls he put into play, 32.1% of them resulted in him reaching base safely. His O-Swing% - or the percentage of pitches he swung at outside the strike zone - was just 30.5%, roughly average for the major leagues.
...punishing mistakes: It's hard to quantify mistakes, but Altuve made contact on 95.3% of the pitches he swung at in the zone (Z-Contact%), well above average. As for "punishing" those pitches, well, his line drive percentage was roughly average at 20.2%.
What happened in 2012:
Altuve was one of the highlights of Houston's offense in 2012, accruing 1.8 fWAR with a .290/.340/.399 slash line, despite some defensive struggles. His .325 wOBA, and 104 wRC+ both led all Astros with at least 400 plate appearances.
2012 was his first full season in the majors, and except for 153 plate appearances in Corpus Christi in 2011, he bypassed the high minors altogether, so there's still a significant learning curve. He turns 23 this May, and will have already had almost two years' worth of above-average Major League play behind him.
What to expect in 2013
Now that Altuve has over 800 plate appearances in The Show, it's time for him to answer the questions that surround him. Don't expect much power, but there is some room for it to grow - his 11 home runs in Lexington in 2010 were good enough for 22nd in the South Atlantic League, and he never finished a level with a SLG under .400 until he reached the majors. But you don't necessarily look to Altuve for extra base hits.
His defense has been his greatest liability in the big leagues, but it was never a concern in the minors. His range is limited, largely due to his size, but his glove and his arm are strong, and I expect his overall defense to improve as he becomes more accustomed to the speed of the big league game.
Of the projections listed at Fangraphs, ZiPs is the least favorable to him, and yet it still likes him to put up 2.4 fWAR, with a .287/.332/.403 slash line. At the other end of the spectrum (ignoring Bill James for the moment,) Oliver puts him at .297/.341/.413, good enough for 2.9 fWAR. All of the systems place him, roughly, in the 2.5-3 win range. Oliver, Steamer, and the Fans give him at least 2.8 fWAR - a full win better than 2012. And all of them put his SLG above .400, as he begins to tap into the power he showed in the minors.
Expect continued development in all aspects of Altuve's game, particularly his defense. Simply put, this is not a guy whose defense should be questioned, at least not beyond the limitations of his size, and I expect him to work hard to make sure it doesn't define him. If he can dig deep and find a little more gap power to edge toward his minor league power numbers, it wouldn't surprise me if he ended the season in the 3-4 win range. Even if he can't tap into his power more, though, expect him to continue to improve as a major league player and to be one of the sparkplugs on offense.