One of the Astros middle infielders has taken the league by storm.
That sentence could have been written before the season and you would have assumed it referred to wunderkind Carlos Correa.
Instead, it's Jose Altuve who has dominated the American League in 2016.
How good has the second baseman been? Through 33 games, he's hit nine home runs, or a solid 20 percent of his career homers. He's also stolen 13 bases and is hitting .323/.408/.654 on the season. His 196 wRC+ is third in the majors behind Manny Machado and David Ortiz.
As he kept hitting leadoff home runs, my mind wandered to one question: Can Jose Altuve win the American League MVP award this year? How improbable would that be? What would he have to do?
Let's run through the past to find our answers.
First of all, he has to hit a lot of home runs. Since 1990, 24 position players have won MVP awards in the American League. They averaged 38 home runs during that stretch, hitting .324 with 14 steals and an average OPS+ of 161. Only four players in that stretch hit less than 30 homers and won the MVP.
The lowest total of those came from Mr. Ichiro Suzuki, who only hit eight in 2001. Of course, he also won a batting title with a .350 average and stole 56 bases with an OPS+ of 126. Oh, and his team made the playoffs. But, we'll get to that in a bit.
Two more of the sub-30 club fell just two homers shy of the mark. Rickey Henderson was the first and, though he didn't get to 30 dingers, he did steal 65 bases, hit .325 with an OPS+ of 189 and took both the stolen base crown and the on-base percentage title that year.
The other in that group was Joe Mauer, who hit .365 with 28 homers, a 171 OPS+, a batting title and an OBP title.
Catching on? If you don't hit homers, you have to win a batting title. Basically.
Where would Altuve fall if he continues this torrid pace? Well, let's assume Altuve plays about 155 games this season, since he's averaged that many in the past three years. That leaves him with 122 games left. At his current pace, he'd hit 42 home runs this season with 193 hits and 61 steals in 690 plate appearances. Those numbers are definitely MVP worthy.
His ZiPS rest of the way projections are less bullish. They have him finishing with 21 home runs, 47 steals and 200 hits. That pace makes more sense based on his career power numbers, but doesn't get him to those MVP levels, with the exception of our final under-30 HR name.
The last of those four on our list? He's a perfect segue into our next section.
Be a good story
Dustin Pedroia is the other name on our list. When he won the award, he hit just 17 home runs and didn't win a batting title or an OBP title. He didn't win a stolen base crown. He did, however, make a good story.
Pedroia, like Altuve, is a second baseman. He's also, like Altuve, shorter than the average ballplayer.
Now, your garden variety baseball writer loves a good narrative. That's understandable too. Before the word narrative became a pejorative, it simply meant to tell a story. Writers are inherently storytellers, even those hard-boiled investigative journalists.
Stories resonate with fans. They also win writers awards and get them book deals, so everyone wins.
Pedroia was a godo story. He was also a good player, leading the league with 54 doubles, 213 hits and 118 runs scored. However, his 123 OPS+ was also the lowest by an MVP winner in our time frame.
Altuve could have his season turned into a narrative pretty easily. Couldn't you see a certain local hack columnist stumping for him this fall with headlines about Altuve as a shining beacon of hope for all the Little Leaguers of the world? I know, I just threw up in my mouth, too.
But, it's not just being short that could get Altuve consideration. Since the MVP award began, it's been awarded to a second baseman 10 times. Six of those could be considered good stories.
What's better news for Altuve is that if you exclude that freak Rogers Hornsby, every one of those keystone patrollers missed 30 home runs. Maybe the best comparable in that group to a season Altuve could have is Ryne Sandberg, who hit .314 with 19 home runs, 32 steals and a 140 OPS+ when he won the award. Sandberg also played Gold Glove defense and led the league in triples (19) and runs scored (114).
Altuve could win another Gold Glove this season and could also reach that home run total while blasting past his steal total.
Sandberg's Cubs made the playoffs when he won the award, one of only two playoff appearances the Hall of Famer made. Since 1990, only two of our AL position player MVPs missed the playoffs. Of those 10 second base winners, just two missed (and one of those was Hornsby the year he hit .403 with 39 homers and a 210 OPS+).
No American League position player has won the MVP award while missing the playoffs since 2003. That's as it should be, too. A third of the teams make the playoffs in the American League. Unless a player has a really special season on a garbage team, he's making the playoffs.
For Altuve to win the award, then, his Astros need to make the playoffs. How impossible is that? Well, it gets easier if #AprilNeverHappened. But, those games counted in the standings, leaving Houston in a hole.
Fortunately, the numbers outside the won-loss column speak favorably to a possible Astros bounce-back. Houston currently has a 35 percent chance of making the playoffs according to FanGraphs. They've also played better than their record suggests by both BaseRuns and third-order wins.
They still have to keep winning to get back into the swing of the playoff chase. That's less about Altuve's performance and more about the pitching, but here we are.
For Altuve to win the MVP award this year, he needs to continue hitting home runs. If he doesn't get to 30 round-trippers, he'll need to win a batting title with a bunch of stolen bases. Oh, and he'll need to make the playoffs.
No big deal, right?
The odds certainly seem long for our favorite second baseman. However, his career has been defined by the wise words of a scruffy man. Never tell him the odds.