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Jose Altuve Somehow Got Even Better

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Already established as one of the league's best hitters coming into 2016, Altuve made some adjustments to put himself on a whole new level.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Altuve has significantly improved his game in 2016. That's a pretty bold statement since Altuve had already won 2 Silver Slugger Awards, 1 Gold Glove, and led the AL in both hits and stolen bases two years in a row (2014-2015) including a batting title in 2014.

Still, I'm not exaggerating when I say that he is a much better player today than he was last year when he earned a start in the All-Star game and even received MVP votes. It all has to do with a simple change to his approach at the plate.

The Skills

Altuve has always excelled at making contact, which shouldn't be surprising if you've watched Big Dreams: The Jose Altuve Story. The documentary includes a scene where Jose and some friends back in Venezuela play a modified form of baseball where the bat is replaced by a much thinner stick and the ball is replaced by a bottle cap. "I think it's good for your eyes," says Altuve. "We do it for fun." If your idea of fun is hitting bottle caps with sticks, you probably aren't intimidated by using a bat to make contact with a baseball.

Source of Data: FanGraphs

Over his career, Altuve has made contact almost 90% of the time that he swings the bat, while the league average contact rate is just under 80%. This helps Altuve in multiple ways. First, it means that he doesn't strike out much. He is able to foul off borderline pitches to stay alive and wait for a better pitch to hit. It also means that by putting the ball in play more, he gets to utilize his other strength: his speed.

That was the story of Jose Altuve prior to 2016. He had the contact skills to put the ball in play, and used his speed to make good things happen from there. It was a winning formula as evidenced by the many awards/accolades he received before even turning 26. However, those great contact skills were both a blessing and a curse.

The Change

Just because you can make contact with a pitch doesn't mean that you should. While Altuve had a better-than-average contact rate, he was also swinging at more pitches outside the zone than the average player and didn't draw walks often.

Source of Data: FanGraphs

Source of Data: FanGraphs

The goal seemed simple enough. If Altuve could learn to be more selective, the pitches he swung at would be better pitches to drive (i.e. in the strike zone) and he would be drawing more walks. Now, this is all good and fine in theory, but doesn't every major leaguer want to swing at fewer pitches outside the zone? After 5 years in the majors, how easy is it to make a change like that? Well, if you're Jose Altuve, anything is possible.

Through 89 games in 2016, it seems pretty clear that Altuve is accomplishing his goal. After remaining relatively stable for the past 3 years, we can see a sharp decrease in his 2016 O-Swing % (swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone). It's important to note that Altuve is not simply taking a more passive approach at the plate. He is still swinging at pitches in the strike zone (Z-Swing %) at a rate similar to prior years. This indicates that he has truly improved his plate discipline, instead of just swinging at fewer pitches in general.

Source of Data: FanGraphs

The Results

Now comes the really fun part. What happens when you take a player with great contact skills and great speed, and significantly improve his plate discipline? In short, good things happen... really really good things.

Fewer swings at pitches outside the strike zone means more walks and fewer strikeouts.

Source of Data: FanGraphs

Since he is being more selective, pitchers are forced to challenge him in the strike zone more. Pitches in the strike zone are easier to drive, so the result is more hard contact.

Source of Data: FanGraphs

Harder contact leads to more line drives and home runs.

Source of Data: FanGraphs

All of this leads to an improved slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage).

Source of Data: FanGraphs

Is it sustainable?

This is the question everyone was asking about Altuve's power after he hit 9 home runs in his first 29 games this season. While he hasn't been able to keep up that rate, he is currently only one shy of his 15 HR total from last year. We can see that his approach at the plate has changed, and it seems reasonable that his improved pitch selection is driving the increased power.

His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) so far in 2016 sits at .347, which is higher than last year (.329) and lower than his .360 BABIP when he won the batting title in 2014. It doesn't seem like an unreasonable number given his increase in line drive % and hard contact.

The numbers Altuve has been putting up throughout the first half of the season have generated talk of an MVP award, and he will certainly have a strong case if he continues this in the second half. For now though, let's hope he shows off his speed and new-found power in the All-Star Game on Tuesday so that we can vote him as the MVP of the game!

Go 'Stros!!