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What Happened to Jose?

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A breakdown of his lost season.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Altuve. By now he might as well be called Mr. Astro. By far the most tenured current player, an Astro since 2011 and under contract until 2024, he’s the only survivor from the Astros Dark Ages.

And no doubt he has already achieved the status as one of the greatest Astros of all time; a five time silver slugger, six time All-Star, three time batting champion, and one of only two Astros MVP’s. His 31 home runs in 2019 is the most of any Astros second baseman in history. All before the age of 30.

Altuve’s 18 playoff homers and 40 RBI are both second all-time in Astros playoff history.

And then came 2020.

Here’s a summary from Statcast.

What happened? From a guy who was near the top in most of these categories year after year, to a replacement level player. After averaging wRC+ 140 between 2014-2019, in 2020 he only hit 77 wRC+. His OPS from 2016-2019 was .909. In 2020 it was .628. His hard hit rate in 2020 went down to 30.4% from 40.8% in 2019 per Fangraphs.

The following is a deeper dive into Altuve’s lost season.

Jose’s 2020 meltdown shows up in four distinct areas of his hitter’s profile: less plate discipline, less contact, a higher ground ball rate, and unusual trouble hitting breaking balls.

Plate Discipline

Altuve has always been known as a wild swinger, but also as a hitter who managed to make high rates of contact. In 2020 this pattern was reversed somewhat.

In truth Altuve’s plate discipline had improved year by year as he became a perennial All-Star. But this year Jose reverted to levels of wild-swing not seen since his rookie year. From 2014-2019 he swung at pitches outside the strike zone at a rate of 33.9%. In 2020 Altuve swung at 38.2% of pitches outside the zone, his highest rate since 2011.

On the other hand, he actually swung at balls inside the zone at a slightly lower rate than in earlier years. From 2014-2019 Altuve swung at 69.3% of pitches inside the zone. In 2020 this went down one percent to 68.4%.

As anyone who actually watched the games already knows, Jose was very confused about where the strike zone was in 2020.

Contact Rates

It follows that if Altuve was swinging at more bad pitches, his contact rate would drop. For his career Altuve’s contact rate was 86.2%. In 2020 it was only 80.2%.

However, this wasn’t just because he was swinging at bad pitches. Because in 2020 he was hitting pitches outside the zone at a rate of 70.2%. Although that was still 35th highest in MLB, It was still far below his career average of 77.6%. (which would have been 7th this year.) His contact rate inside the zone was also down slightly, from 92.7% career average to 89.3% in 2020.

His swinging strike rate was up over 3 percent over career average, from 6.5% to 9.8%.

More Ground Balls

In 2020 Altuve had the second highest ground ball rate of his career, 49.3% compared to a career average of 46.3%. His launch angle was a career low, (records began in 2015) 9.3 compared to a career average of 10.4.

Getting beaten by the breaking ball

Of course if a player has a terrible season, it stands to reason that his performance against the individual pitches would generally be worse, and that was true for Altuve in 2020.

According to the Fangraph’s Pitch Values measure, Altuve’s success at each pitch was as follows: (0.00 being average)

Fastball: -1.35...Slider: -1.34...Cutter: -.23...Curve: -1.94...Change: 0.92. For each of these pitches except the change up there was a dramatic drop-off from career averages. But of course, his batting average was only .219, compared to a career average of .311.

But pitchers exploited the slider and curve to a greater extent than ever before. According to Fangraphs, from 2014-2019 pitchers threw Altuve fastballs 53.6% of the time. In 2020 that was down to 44.9%. Meanwhile, he saw sliders 26.4% of the time in 2020, up from 17.9% from 2014-2019.

According to Statcast, Altuve’s xWOBA on the fast ball and breaking balls was considerably worse than in 2019, in fact, they were at career lows. Meanwhile, he did better in 2020 against offspeed pitches compared to career averages, which he saw, however, only 11.9% of the time.

Altuve’s xWOBA on the fastball in 2020 was .310. His average xWOBA on the FB for the preceding five years was .395, a .85 point difference.

Altuve’s xWOBA on the breaking ball in 2020 was .165. His average xWOBA on the breaking ball for the preceding five years was .289, a .124 point difference. No wonder he was seeing more breaking balls in 2020, even considering how poorly he performed against the fastball.

His whiff rate on breaking balls in 2020 was 35.7%. Altuve’s average in the preceding five years was 24.0%. His putaway rate on the breaking ball was also at a career high in 2020.

None of the above really explains why Altuve was so bad in 2020. It merely breaks down and describes some of the patterns of that downfall.

Allow me to speculate on a few possible explanations.

Yes, I think Altuve’s confidence was affected by the cheating scandal.

But I also think that some of the problem stems from changes in Altuve’s approach that have been emerging gradually but were particularly obvious in 2019. Altuve had a career year in home runs in 2019, but also his lowest batting average since 2013. He also had a career high ISO of .252. But at the same time a career high strikeout rate of 15.0%. Career high until this year, that is, when he struck out 18.6% of the time.

Most of the trends noted about Altuve’s performance in 2020 concerning bat discipline, contact rates, ground balls and trouble with breaking balls were already trending in 2019.

Clearly, Jose Altuve’s approach has evolved from an emphasis on contact to an emphasis on power. In the year 2019 he went all in. This will tend to increase streakiness. He had pronounced hot and cold streaks in 2019, and we have reason to think that the truncated 2020 season was just a prolonged slump. Why? Because we saw the breakout in the playoffs.

I believe that the hitting mechanics Altuve has adopted to make himself into to a 5’5” power hitter require a delicate and precarious balance that can exacerbate his new swing and miss and ground ball tendencies.

Altuve has been relying more on his back arm to generate power, and when he is on, he allows the back hand to roll over the front hand starting at the moment of contact and immediately afterwards. If contact is slightly on the bottom half of the ball as intended, this may enhance back spin that propels home runs.

What I’ve seen is that when Altuve is in a slump the timing of the rollover is too early, leading to swing and miss or swinging on top of the ball. Normally rollover is considered one of the cardinal sins of hitting mechanics, but when Altuve has it timed right he can go on a home run tear. He may be one of the few players talented enough to get away with this.

If he doesn’t he can look very bad, as he did for most of the 48 regular season games he played in 2020.

A look at Altuve’s rollover on contact on a home run.

The following is a four part view of Altuve’s home run swing. This one was in the 2017 ALDS.

The moment of contact.

This is not a perfect swing, as this ball is pulled down the left field line, so Jose is a little out in front and his arms are extended more than would be considered ideal. But watch what he does with his back hand in the next few frames.

In this frame notice that the bat appears to have twisted clockwise slightly. The back wrist has twisted up slightly.

Here we see the back hand begin to noticeably start to roll over the front. The ball is barely out of the frame.

While the bat is pointing at center field the rollover of Altuve’s back hand is complete. Of course at some point a hitter has to do this rollover to complete the swing, or else let go of the bat after contact. But this seems to happen in a very exaggerated way for Altuve and relatively early in the follow through. The reason some batters release their back hand at this point is precisely to avoid rollover.

This approach seems to be an important component in Altuve’s power production, but if this rollover happens too soon, as it seems to do at times, it can lead to a lot of weak grounders to the shortstop. Altuve seemed more selective in using this swing in 2017-18, but in 2019 and 2020 it seems to have become more of a default, with mixed results.

Anyone with deeper knowledge of hitting mechanics who cares to disagree with or add to my analysis feel free to comment below.