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The Amazing Evolution of Jose Altuve. (But is he heading in the right direction?)

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In 2011 who would have thought Jose would become one of the leading home run hitters in baseball?

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Jose Altuve continues to amaze.

In his last two full seasons of baseball, Jose Altuve has hit 31 home runs each season. Given his physical stature, I don’t have to convince anyone of how unlikely this is. I count only nine other players in MLB who hit 31 or more homers in both the 2019 and 2021 seasons.

Safe to say, none of them weighed anywhere near Jose’s 166 pounds. They would all probably be classified as heavyweights if they were boxers.

But just in case you forgot, Jose Altuve didn’t always hit like this:

In his first three seasons, encompassing over 1500 PAs, Altuve hit only 14 home runs, slugging only .377, with a microscopic isolated slugging (ISO) of .092.

In other words, a pure singles hitter. (and he didn’t even walk much)

Besides the physical improbability of a man only 5’6”, (some say that’s on tip toes) hitting over 30 homers in two consecutive full seasons, there are other anomalies in this strange narrative of Jose Altuve, the home run hitter.

  1. In 2021 his K% of 13.4 was the lowest of any hitter with more than 15 homers. It was the 15th lowest in MLB, and everyone with lower K rates had single-digit homers except Yuli Gurriel.
  2. All other hitters with 30-35 home runs in 2021 had an average K% of 22.7, almost 10% higher than Altuve’s.
  3. Altuve was 65th in swing% (47) in 2021, about middle-of-the-pack for qualified hitters and in line with his career average. Yet his contact% was elite, 85.2, 13th in MLB. Only one hitter with more than 15 home runs rated better than Altuve in contact%.
  4. The main reason for Altuve’s high contact% is his high O contact% (outside the zone contact), ninth best in MLB at 77.2%
  5. Altuve’s BB% (9.7), was only 3.7% less than his K%. Among the 62 batters with 25 or more homers in 2021 only 5 had a lower differential. (incredibly, Juan Soto had a BB% almost double his K%)

Much of this isn’t surprising or new. As always, Altuve tends to swing a lot, and his ability to make contact even on bad pitches keeps his contact% high and his K% low.

What is surprising and unique is that while remaining an elite contact hitter Altuve has simultaneously broken into the ranks of the consistent, elite power hitters. Most power hitters have a lot of swing and miss. Jose has a lot of swing and hit. But unlike typical contact hitters it’s swing and hit with power.

It has not always been this way, but the question is, has Jose gone too far?

The transition has been gradual. In the chart below I have broken Altuve’s career down into three periods:

  1. Early Altuve, spray hitter, 2011-2015
  2. MVP era Altuve, balanced approach, 2016-2018
  3. Current Altuve, swinging for the left field fence, 2019-2021

The 3 stages in the evolution of Jose Altuve

Altuve Stats, 3 Stages

Years PAs HRs K% ISO OBP SLG wRC+ FB+IFFB% Pull% Cont % Hard Cont%
Years PAs HRs K% ISO OBP SLG wRC+ FB+IFFB% Pull% Cont % Hard Cont%
2011-2015 2932 36 10.5 .110 .343 .415 110 36.9 39.6 89.4 23.8
2016-2018 1978 61 11.8 .179 .398 .512 149 36.8 42.7 84.9 31.8
2019-2021 1436 67 14.8 .214 .342 .491 125 49.0 50.9 82.8 34.6

The key takeaways

Stage 1

In Altuve’s early career he emphasized contact. His swing% has been consistently high his whole career, but in his early years his contact% was otherworldly, 89.4%. He translated this into silver slugger batting averages by spraying singles to all fields and limiting flyballs. Consequently, his home run total, SLG%, ISO, and hard hit%s were all extremely low.

Here’s Altuve’s spray chart from this era. Keep in mind, this chart records a period with almost as many PAs as the other two periods combined.

Stage 2

In the MVP era, Altuve began to add power to his game without losing the ability to spray hits to all fields. In other words, his hitting skill set was remarkably diverse. He could hit the fuel pump in deep left center, punch a grounder through any gap in the infield, drive a double off the wall in right-center, even bunt for a hit. Consequently, he managed a slash line in 2017 of .346/.410/.547 with 24 home runs. His hard contact% and ISO increased considerably, but his pull%, FB%, and K%s remained low.

In this period Altuve seemed to know when to swing for the fences, and when to settle for the soft liner to right.

Here’s Altuve’s spray chart from the MVP era. Note the home runs to right field.

Stage 3

Which brings us to the current iteration of Altuve. Everything indicates a preference for swinging at the left field fence. The hard contact% and ISO are at high points, as well as home run totals, but there is also a decrease in contact%, BA, OBP, and an increase in K%. But most tellingly, Altuve’s FB% and pull%s increased dramatically, numbers that were relatively stable before 2019.

In other words, he’s swinging hard while shooting above the left field wall.

Here’s the spray chart for Stage 3 Altuve:

Altuve may yet have his best days ahead

The new Altuve is a disappointment to those who have followed his career since his 2016 breakout year. While ISO and hard contact rates have increased, the performance results are not there. His slash stats are all down, as well as wRC+. More home runs haven’t even translated into a higher SLG%.

Still, even in this year, with a full-season, all-time low BA of .278, very few outside of Houston would complain about a second baseman who hit 31 homers with a wRC+ 30% better than league average.

But in contrast to his MVP season of 2017, he now is only the third best second baseman by fWAR in MLB at 5.2. Woe is we in Houston.

So Jose has seen a slight decline in performance even as his home run numbers have increased. Some say the absence of cheating is the cause for this decline.

I’ll say it one more time.

JOSE DID NOT CHEAT.

Ok, but some say that Altuve is affected psychologically by being blamed for cheating. Maybe that was a factor in his abysmal but short 2020 season, but the patterns we’ve seen the last three years began before the cheating came to light after the 2019 season and have continued this year.

So maybe Jose’s “decline” is due to age.

I don’t think so.

Players age in different ways at different rates, but players like Jose in their age 29-31 years aren’t typically far from their peak. All-time great second basemen like Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, and Craig Biggio, for example, all had their best seasons by fWAR in their age 31 seasons.

No, I think Altuve’s “problem,” such as it is, is that he’s gotten into a tough-to-break habit of swinging for the fences. He was better when he employed a more varied approach, but he’s having trouble getting his approach back to the sweet spot he occupied in his MVP era years.

Which is good news. It means that if Jose can find that groove again, something approaching the league-leading excellence we saw in 2017 is possible yet again.