The Astros’ lineup is no longer a juggernaut. What was supposed to be one of the most feared offenses in all of baseball has been stymied this season. With George Springer and Michael Brantley entering free agency this winter, it’s possible — if not probable — that the lineup will be losing its top two performers from the 2020 season. This puts more responsibility on the shoulders of Jose Altuve, who has been dreadful in 2020, and is one of the biggest reasons why the offense has struggled this year. Altuve had been the lineup’s one constant throughout the entirety of the 2010s. Now he is the weak link. Will it last?
The data in this article is via Baseball Savant and has been compiled as of 9/26/20.
Altuve is hitting .220/.286/.333 with 4 HR in 203 PA this season. He’s stolen 2 bases in 5 attempts. His walk rate is a tick under 8% and his K rate is just above 19%. His wOBA is an abysmal .270 and FanGraphs has his wRC+ at a lowly 74. Altuve’s slash line against lefties in 53 PA is a robust .170/.264/.255, with a K% of 24.5%. Aside from doubling his career K% vs. lefty pitching this year, the .170 average pales in comparison to his career .332 average. Small sample size hell, hopefully.
According to FanGraphs, Altuve’s career BABIP is .334. It’s currently at .259 this year. Unfortunately, there’s not as much bad luck associated with that .259 number as you’d think, as Altuve’s 2020 xBA is .241, while his career xBA in the Statcast era (beginning in 2015) is .289.
Altuve’s exit velos are a bit lower in 2020 but what’s vastly different this year is the decrease in his barrel rate to 4.1%, along with an increase in his weak contact percentage to 8.2%, which is substantially higher than his usual rate. Also, his sweet spot percentage has continued to plummet and is now well-below-average.
Despite being as fast as he’s ever been, Altuve’s no longer stealing bases. It’s not news, as he only stole 6 last year (in 11 attempts, no less), but the stark decline in stolen base production without a reduction in speed is strange, to say the least. For several years he was one of the top base stealers in baseball.
Overall, those are some pretty f***tacular numbers. The data regarding southpaws is especially mystifying but I’d imagine over a full season it’d somewhat normalize.
Time to dive.
Snorkeling Gear Recommended
As we go beneath the surface, let’s examine Altuve’s plate discipline:
For the most part, the 2020 metrics are in-line with his averages over the past several years. The metrics that do stand out, however, are the chase rate, the meatball (middle-middle pitches) swing percentage and, to a lesser extent, the whiff rate.
The whiff rate is notably higher than previous marks, but last year it was roughly the same percentage that it’s at now, and did not hurt Altuve’s 2019 production. The difference is Altuve still maintained a low K% in ‘19 (15%), whereas it’s close to 20% in ‘20. Altuve’s profile cannot be optimized without putting the ball in play at a high clip. Whether it’s a lack of mental acuity or the need of a mechanical adjustment, the strikeouts must be minimized.
The chase rate and the meatball swing percentage are what we’re going to focus on, beginning with the former.
Altuve’s chase rate was 30% in 2018 and 2019. Now, it’s ballooned up to over 35%. This is not a trivial problem, but a serious one. To understand why, we’re going to compare 2019 to 2020.
First off, it’s worth pointing out that Altuve’s dropped his swing (chase) percentage against pitches low and away out of the strike zone by 6% his season. It’s notable because that’s the zone where he sees the most pitches. Because of that fact, let’s compare his 2019 and 2020 numbers against pitches in that zone, using a handful of relevant metrics:
Needless to say, it’s good that Altuve’s swinging at fewer of these pitches, as he’s doing even worse against them this year than last.
What might be more noticeable is that Altuve doubled his swing percentage at non-strike pitches up and away. So, how’s that working out for him?
Not as bad as I expected, but there’s been some considerable luck in play.
So, where is the root of this “serious problem” that I was hinting at?
You Really Need Snorkeling Gear
These are Altuve’s numbers against pitches that are inside and not in the strike zone. If you’ll notice as you look at Altuve’s swing percentage by zone, Altuve is swinging significantly more often at these inside pitches. He did well against them in 2019, but he’s struggled mightily against them this year. Pitchers have taken notice, as evidenced by how they’ve pitched him the past two seasons.
It gets worse when looking at Altuve’s numbers against pitches in the inner third of the strike zone:
You would’ve been foolish to challenge Altuve inside last year. That could not be further from the truth this year.
Remember when I said that Altuve is swinging at a lot more middle-middle pitches? Here’s how the data looks this year and last:
At last, some actual good news. While the 0 degree launch angle is incredibly bizarre and slightly disconcerting, the enormous differences in the 2020 data suggest that Altuve’s been extremely unlucky against these pitches. While it’s obviously good to swing at ‘meatballs,’ that launch angle is just perplexing, which has us diving farther into the next bit.
Do Not Proceed Without an Air Tank
Altuve’s aforementioned barrel issue has sapped his power output. Initially, it’s puzzling, because when comparing his 2019 and 2020 hard hit rates and launch angles, they’re similar. But then it became quite clear when viewing his fly ball data:
The contrast between each year is just ridiculous. Perhaps some of the contrast can be chalked up to an inadequate sample size, but certainly not all of it.
I think the most important metric in that image is the launch angle. This next image of Altuve’s hard hit fly balls will further illustrate why:
Simply put, it’s bad for a launch angle to be above 40 degrees. Here is a snippet from a FanGraphs article written a few years ago by Andrew Perpetua:
Yeah, you really want to stay below 40 degrees, preferably below 35. Altuve did that in ‘19. He has totally failed to do so in ‘20. I’d argue that Altuve’s fly ball data — hard hit or not — is the primary reason why his 2020’s been a disaster.
As I’ve said with my previous dives, the 2020 data is not based on normal, season-long sample sizes. It’s just what I have to work with. I can’t wait for this disclaimer to be non-existent this time next year.
Intent be damned, Altuve has been going out of his way to help pitchers this year. He’s become a liability against pitches inside, and his plate discipline is seemingly AWOL. Pound him inside with the hard stuff, then throw breaking balls away, or vice versa. Not exactly an uncommon way to get a hitter out. It’s just uncommon for Altuve.
With the playoffs now on the doorstep, it’s imperative that Altuve performs offensively. What’s even more important is that he solves these issues for beyond 2020, when the lineup is unlikely to be as talented, and more in need of his usual production.