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Since Coming Off the IL, Jose Altuve Has Looked Better than Ever

The Houston Astros owe some of their recent success to one of the game’s best hitters finding a way to get even better

MLB: Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s really good to have Jose Altuve back. The 2017 AL MVP has been a fixture of the Astros’ lineup for years, and the month of games he was out, the team’s lineup just didn’t look quite right. Obviously, Jose alone wasn’t responsible for the team turning into a 20-run-a-game juggernaut, but those types of games do show why he was so missed.

Of course even before his injury, something still seemed a little off about Houston’s lineup this year, and some of that was Altuve’s struggles. Given that we know that he would need to eventually go on the Injured List, it makes more sense now, but on April 13th, the three-time batting champion reached the highest point for his batting average on the young season (outside of a 2-4 performance on Opening Day, or course) at .333. After those fifteen games, his next twenty-four games before the IL trip would see a precipitous drop down to .243, with only two multi-hit games and eleven hitless ones along the way.

But even outside of that injury, Altvue looked a little different. Take this article, for instance, from back on April 22nd. Jose was hitting for a lot more power than normal, but it seemed to be coming at the cost of his average and on-base percentage, with a unusual-for-him slash line of .296/.348/.617. It wasn’t necessarily bad or anything, but it definitely looked unusual for him. Perhaps it was an early sign of a change in his approach caused by that injury, or maybe it was just an early-season fluke. Whatever it was, things got a lot worse from there, which put that weirdness in the rearview.

But now, Altuve’s been back for almost two months, and has just a few more games since returning than he had before leaving. On the one hand, he definitely looks more like his old self; he’s pulled his season average up a full 64 points, and a lot of related peripherals like his contract rate, his strikeout rate, his walk rate, his batting average on balls in play, and so on, all look…if not totally back to his normal levels, then close enough considering how rough that pre-injury stretch was.

All of that should give you an idea of just how hot the last two months have been for him. From his return on June 19th to yesterday, Altuve on the whole has accrued 2.1 WAR per Fangraphs, tied for ninth in the Majors. His batting-specific numbers are even better, with a .347 average that’s seventh in the majors in that time (just two points behind Yordan) and a .392 OBP that’s just a hair outside of the top twenty-five. It looks a lot like peak Jose is back; just compare his 2016 (.338/.396) or 2017 (.346/.410) numbers.

Overall, his 166 wRC+ for the past two months is eighth in the majors, two points ahead of Alex Bregman (but still only third on the Astros, because Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Álvarez are just nuts). That’s great too, but it’s also a sign that things aren’t just business as normal here, either; Altuve’s best mark over a full season is just 160, back in 2017. How has he done that with an OBP that’s slightly lower? With power we simply haven’t seen from him before; it turns out that anomalous early season performance stuck around, even after his contact returned.

If you were watching or listening to Wednesday’s game, you may have heard the announcers note that Jose’s home run was his 22nd on the year, two shy of his career best and with a quarter of the season left even with his month-long injury. With the new ball flying out of the park, that might not be surprising; everyone’s probably setting personal bests, right?

That might be true, but Jose is still pacing the field of personal bests, with a .611 slugging percentage since his return that’s twelfth in the majors. And while his hard hit percentage of 38% for that timeframe isn’t leading the league or anything, it definitely feels worth noting that it’s over 10 points higher than his career average and over four points above his previous season best.

That improvement on his prior greatness is a big part of why the Astros are currently the offensive juggernaut that they are. If you had told me before the season that a hitter as good as Jose Altuve would find another gear, I would have been skeptical, but it seems to have happened. And while those numbers will eventually fall, especially as his home run rate drops, it’s still notable that he’s found a way to hit the ball even harder than he did before without giving up much of his ability to put the ball in play.