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Jose Altuve: The Zero True Outcomes Hitter

Jose Altuve puts another Silver Slugger award on his mantle, solidifying his status as one of the league's best hitters. But he's done it in an unorthodox way: Rarely striking out, rarely drawing walks, and rarely hitting home runs. What does this say for the future of the Astros second baseman?

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Over at Beyond the Box Score, Spencer Bingol has written an article about the 2015 Silver Slugger Award winners. In discussing how Altuve ranks first among A.L. second basemen in OPS+ but just fourth in wRC+, he remarks:

Despite his small stature, Jose Altuve actually hit for more power than (Logan Forsythe, Jason Kipnis, and Ben Zobrist) but got on base at a lower clip.

On its surface, this analysis makes complete sense: Altuve's .459 slugging percentage is a tick above the other three (Kipnis leads that group with a .451 SLG). Incidentally, I frequently hear mention of Altuve's "pop." But Forsythe had more home runs than Altuve in fewer plate appearances, and Zobrist was not far off:

Jose Altuve (HOU) .459 .146 15 7.4%
Logan Forsythe (TBR) .444 .163 17 9.7%
Jason Kipnis (CLE) .451 .149 9 6.9%
Ben Zobrist (KCR) .450 .173 13 9.7%

How does a player lead in slugging percentage, but come in last in isolated power? Good old-fashioned batting average, that's how. Altuve's .313 not only outpaced this particular field - Kipnis came closest with .303 - but it was second among all qualified MLB second baesmen, trailing only Dee Gordon's .333.

In fact, as much as people like to talk about Altuve's power - after all, fifteen home runs from a second baseman has a way of jumping off the page at you - his 7.4% HR/FB rate puts him in the bottom thirty of 141 qualified MLB hitters. So if Jose Altuve has power, it isn't home run power.

One of the reasons for that is simple: Altuve ranked twentieth-worst among qualified hitters in line drive percentage, with 18.1% (his Astros teammate, Evan Gattis, was even worse with a 17.0% line drive rate).

Altuve coupled his low line drive rate in 2015 with a low walk rate (4.8%, tied for 18th-worst in the majors) and a low strikeout rate (9.7%, fifth-best in the majors). If home runs, walks, and strikeouts are the Three True Outcomes, Altuve produces as close to none of them as possible, making him perhaps the only Zero True Outcomes hitter in the majors.

Last year in the Hardball Times, Dan Farnsworth speculated that for some players - particularly speedy players with low HR/FB rates - a groundball approach might be advantageous.

Altuve seems to fit the bill. His Speed Score, according to Fangraphs, was 5.9 in 2015, tied for 22nd-best. Thirty-three players had Speed Scores of 5.5 or better. But among those thirty-three, Altuve had the third-lowest line drive rate, the fifteenth-lowest groundball rate, and the tenth-highest flyball rate. (Perhaps notably, he also had the third-highest infield flyball hit rate.)

So while Altuve definitely represents Farnsworth's group of low HR/FB hitters with good speed, he's hitting more balls in the air than one might expect. And his .329 BABIP, though good (thirty-fifth best in the majors), is far from elite (just fifth-best among second basemen).

I was a year early when I predicted Jose Altuve's breakout season, but "breakout" is exactly what he has done, nonetheless. How he's done it has been the interesting thing to watch: He doesn't hit for any real power, he has questionable plate discipline (14.5% K+BB), relying instead on putting the ball in play and using his speed to put pressure on the defense. However, he tends to hit more balls in the air than one would expect from his player type.

One has to be concerned with Altuve's ability to maintain a high batting average while hitting so many balls in the air, rarely squaring them up. We know that BABIP tends to be most-suppressed on flyballs, followed by groundballs, and finally line drives. When a player's batted ball profile is so heavily-stacked toward balls in the air, you expect his batting average on those balls in play to decrease. This has been a consistent trend with Altuve, who has lowered his groundball rate and raised his flyball rate every season since 2012.

So, can he keep up his prodigious hitting in 2016? It remains to be seen. Altuve will still be young: Entering his age-26 season with two more years left on his contract, one should not expect a sharp decline in his hitting prowess. But one can also no longer expect him to suddenly start drawing walks, and the increasing trend of inflated flyball rates (even though he did almost double his HR/FB rate this season) is a little disturbing. But there's still no reason to expect him to drop off the table in one season.

What do you think, readers? Is this likely to be Altuve's last Silver Slugger Award, or is he just getting started?