After settling in as one of the league's best hitters early in his career, Jose Altuve has transformed himself into a different player this year. In my previous article, I looked at how some simple changes have led to dramatic results for Altuve in 2016.
Now we will look at historical players who were able to make the same kind of changes to their game after already establishing themselves as big league hitters. Finally, we will discuss whether Altuve will be contending for the MVP in future years or if this is likely the best year of his career.
What is so special about 2016?
In case you missed it, Altuve has improved in every offensive area you could imagine in 2016:
- If you weren't impressed by his league-best .341 batting average in 2014, he has improved it to the tune of .361 through 112 games in 2016.
- Were you upset that his average BB% over the last 3 seasons was below 5%? He has raised that to 9.5% in 2016.
- A lack of power, you say? His .570 slugging percentage so far in 2016 disagrees.
- Finally, he achieved all this while keeping his 2016 K% below his average K% over the last 3 years.
- Ok ok, I'll admit that he isn't on pace to steal 56 bases like he did in 2014, but with 26 stolen bases so far this year, he could still match or exceed his 2015 total (38)
How rare is this? Many young players show improvement over their first several seasons in the big leagues, but this seems like pretty tremendous improvement for a guy who broke into the big leagues in 2011 and had already won a batting title, 2 silver slugger awards, and made 3 All-Star game appearances prior to 2016.
Criteria for Historical Comps
To find some historical comparisons, I pulled individual season stats from Fangraphs for all MLB players going back to the 1900 season. I wanted to find players who, like Altuve, had established themselves as good MLB players for a few years and then got dramatically better in a single year. So I compared each player's season stats to their average stats over the prior 3 seasons, and looked for players who had achieved the following:
- Single season BB% was at least 4 percentage points higher than their prior 3-year BB%
- Single season K% was no higher than their prior 3-year K%
- Single season AVG was higher than their prior 3-year AVG
- Single season SLG was at least 100 points higher than their prior 3-year SLG
If a player had accomplished this in a single season, I'm calling it his extreme breakout year. Altuve has accomplished each of these feats through 112 games in 2016, so I only looked at players who had done this while playing in at least 110 games during their extreme breakout year and each of the prior 3 years.
Only 7 other players since 1900 have accomplished what Altuve is doing this year. Here is a quick glance at their career stats:
Note that Barry Bonds is the only player on this list other than Altuve who could be called a base-stealer. No other players except Arky Vaughan stole 10 bases in a single season, and Vaughan's highest SB total for a single season was only 20 while Altuve and Bonds both stole over 50 in a single season.
Besides Bonds, those are some pretty nice names to draw comparisons to. Many on the list were among the most feared batters in the league in their heyday. Of the 5 players on that list who have appeared on Hall of Fame ballots, 2 are enshrined in Cooperstown and Bonds certainly has the numbers for it, though we all know what's preventing his induction.
The graph below was created using Fangraphs and shows the wOBA by age for each player.
Altuve was 25 years old when this season, his extreme breakout year, began. Rico Petrocelli was also 25 at the beginning of his extreme breakout year and Arky Vaughan was only 23 at the beginning of his extreme breakout year. Arky Vaughan is enshrined in Cooperstown, while Rico Petrocelli's career was cut short by injuries. Everyone else was 27 or older at the beginning of their extreme breakout year.
So is this extreme breakout year the season when these players really figured everything out for good and went on to win multiple MVP awards? Or is it simply the best year in a player's career? In other words, should we expect Altuve to repeat these numbers in future years or is this the best we will see from our 5' 6" hero?
Well, only Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds were able to achieve a higher wRC+ for a single season after their extreme breakout year.
The graph above plots the wRC+ for each player in every season relative to their extreme breakout season (Season 0 = extreme breakout year). While the players had great offensive years after their extreme breakout years, most of them were unable to reproduce or improve upon their results in their extreme breakout seasons.
So will Altuve also fail to repeat this year's numbers, or is this just the beginning of years of MVP consideration? I'll preface this with disclosing that I'm an optimist, but the comparisons still don't seem to do Altuve justice. Barry Bonds is the only other player since 1900 to have an extreme breakout year while stealing 30+ bases per season, but most believe that Bonds used PEDs to achieve his phenomenal numbers.
I truly believe that Altuve has achieved his 2016 results through a change in approach at the plate as explained in my previous article, and not through the use of PEDs. So if Altuve is doing something just as impressive as what Barry Bonds did, and he has achieved these results while staying clean, then he truly is in a league of his own.