On the Astros: Jose Altuve doing his thing, defying comparisons

Brian Blanco

Houston's second baseman is a wholly unique player.

He's not alone, but he is unique.

Jose Altuve will always draw attention for his size. He has proven over the last three seasons that he belongs in the majors, but that doesn't matter. People will see his height first and worry about his game later. It just so happens that his game is also completely unusual.

Go ahead. Try to find a comparable guy. Baseball Reference does a good job of this with its Similarity Scores and puts Altuve alongside names like Rod Carew, Nellie Fox, Chuck Knoblauch, Homer Bush, Luis Rivas and Jerry Browne. Except that none of those comparisons are perfect.

Nellie Fox never stole bases like Altuve does. Rod Carew walks a ton more than Altuve does. Ditto Knoblauch. Bush, Rivas, Browne and Josh Barfield only had one good season before falling off. Altuve has done this before as recently as 2012, so it's nothing new.

What, exactly is he doing?

Well, Jose Altuve is on pace for 200 hits, 42 doubles, 51 extra-base hits, 47 steals, 41 walks and 60 strikeouts. Finding players with that many hits without power and without walking very often is hard to do. As mentioned on the podcast Sunday, the last guy to do something similar was Freddy Sanchez in 2006 with the Pirates.

Sanchez, too, falls into that "one-year wonder" class. While his career line looks like something Altuve can achieve, Sanchez did it when he was 27 and in his prime. Altuve is reaching these heights for a second year and he's just 24.

Let's assume Altuve will have more seasons like this one. In about three full seasons, he's already 36th on Houston's all-time hit list with 506 (through Sunday). If he adds another 100 hits this season (as the projections say), he'll butt right up against Art Howe for 29th on the all-time list. He will also be close to Howe on the all-time doubles list for the franchise, right by the top 25.

Before we anoint him at the top of these lists and as an eventual 3,000 hit guy (for the record, if Altuve averages 182 hits per season for the next 14 years, he'll clear 3,000 hits in July 2028 as a 38-year-old), let's remember his 2013 season, when we wondered if Delino DeShields or Tony Kemp or Ronald Torreyes were the futures at second base. Well, maybe not "we," but some fans certainly did.

Altuve's batting average on balls in play is probably an unsustainable .354, which means it could drop back to his career level by about 30 points. If so, his average should also drop, but it's entirely reasonable to assume Altuve could hit .300 the rest of the way with a .320 BABiP. Again, FanGraphs projects him to finish with a .316 batting average this year. If he does that, he'd have the 18th-best single season batting average in franchise history.

That's not even talking about his doubles and his steals. Only one guy in franchise history has a season with at least 40 doubles and 40 steals. He should be in the Hall of Fame next year, too. He'd be the 14th player in franchise history to steal 40 or more in a season and could put up the 17th season with 45 or more by an Astro.

Few players in franchise history have combined all of Altuve's gifts. While Michael Bourn had the steals, he didn't have the power or the batting average. Cesar Cedeno had all three, but he also had much more power than Altuve. Biggio, too, combined all of Altuve's best traits, but walks a whole lot more than our new second baseman.

That's what makes Altuve so interesting. He's unlike any player in franchise history. His rise as a prospect was improbable. His continued success at the major league level defies expectations. That makes any projections onto Altuve's future seem invalid. How can you project the future of such an enigma?

Case in point: two of those Altuve comps, Carew and Fox, both won MVP awards. The Fox MVP may be wholly confusing, but he still won. In this current environment, I'd be shocked if Altuve even got MVP votes.

At this point, nothing would shock me about his future.

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