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A Reason for Optimism: Jose Altuve’s Strong Start

The Astros’ star second baseman has looked impressive in the season’s first five games.

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that Jose Altuve struggled mightily in 2020. A .219/.286/.344 slash line and 77 wRC+ aren’t pretty numbers to read on a computer screen or watch unfold during a game, no matter the actual length of a season. From the outside looking in, however, the star second baseman’s issues last season were due to a variety of factors, such as the fallout from the sign-stealing scandal, the weird nature of a shortened season, and some deaths in his family. Throw in the stresses of a global pandemic and it is understandable to see why anyone could struggle to perform at their job.

If there was hope for optimism following the ALCS against the Rays, it was Altuve’s postseason performance (235 wRC+ in 13 games) that inspired hope that better days were in front of him again. The last two series against the A’s and Rays, in particular, demonstrated what Altuve was capable of as a hitter, even if his fielding was shaky at best. (EDIT: Altuve’s 77 wRC+ in 2020 jumps to 112 if you combine his postseason numbers with the regular season.)

To start the 2021 season, the Astros are 4-1 in their first five games. In those five games, they’ve allowed an average of 3.2 runs per game while scoring an average of 8.2 runs per game. A good start for a roster that has been criticized heavily since the sign-stealing fallout began. And while no modern-day lineup can maintain that kind of pace for an entire season — the 2019 Astros topped off at 5.68 runs per game — the first five games have sparked hope for a lineup that simply looked lost in 2020. For Altuve, his performance at the plate has played a positive role in this year’s early resurgence.

It’s Early, But A Step In The Right Direction

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In terms of results, the early returns are optimistic, although the power hasn’t quite bounced back yet for Altuve. With only one extra-base hit thus far, it is too early to boldly proclaim if the six-time All-Star can return to a similar form that he held in 2018-19. After all, the 2021 season is only five games old and there is a lot of baseball left to play. It will take some time for stats to stabilize as well. For example, it takes about 160 at-bats for isolated power to stabilize. On-base percentage is about 460 plate appearances and contact rate takes 100 plate appearances. The amount of time it takes for stats to stabilize in baseball is the prime reason why I thought the chatter about Altuve’s steep decline in 2020 was premature. A baseball season of only sixty games is basically a small sample in itself.

For 2021 purposes, I am most curious to see how Altuve’s fly ball rate progresses. His 2020 season, even with all of its short sample implications, did have its lowest fly ball rate since 2014 at 29.7 percent. The majority of Altuve’s prime seasons occurred when that rate was at least 30 percent or higher. Outside of his 2018 season, which was exactly 30 percent, we didn’t see a fly ball rate drop below 32.5 percent for the 2017 AL MVP. It currently sits at 27.8 percent early in 2021 and it does take 80 balls in play for that metric to stabilize. We’re only 18 deep this season. But it is encouraging to see a rise in line drives, which may hopefully convert into some fly balls.

In any case, it will take some time to see how far Altuve will ultimately rebound. A lot can go well or go bad at this point in a season. But as I said earlier, the early returns in five games are encouraging. It is a start that Altuve needed to have in 2021. Let’s see if it continues to progress into something definitive.