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Despite age and injury, José Altuve is flourishing at the plate

Even at 32, the Astros second baseman is elevating key aspects of his game to new heights.

Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

José Altuve is supposed to be trending downward. The 2017 AL MVP is on the wrong side of 30 and has been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury since April 20. The wear and tear of playing more than 1,500 games in the big leagues across 11-plus years is undoubtedly impacting him physically. But somehow, seemingly none of it has hampered Altuve’s ability to hit.

The Astros’ stalwart at the keystone enters Tuesday with a slash line of .259/.351/.518 and has already slugged 7 home runs in just 97 plate appearances. It’s a good start to the season for Altuve. Beneath the surface, however, the numbers are even better.

At the age of 32, Altuve appears to be swinging it perhaps more effectively than ever before. Both his Barrel rate (10.3 percent) and walk rate (11.3 percent) are above his career-high marks, and his .295 xBA is surpassed only by his 2016 figure (.318).

All of this helps to result in a .392 xwOBA and a 161 wRC+ — both would be career-highs.

A seven-time All-Star, Altuve is an exceptionally gifted hitter who’s produced multiple 30-home run seasons since 2019. But because this year’s sample size is small, sustainability concerns naturally enter the fold — the question is how significant they are.

On one hand, Altuve’s exit velos are rather abysmal. Both his average exit velocity and his Hard-hit rate are in the Bottom 15 percent in the big leagues. Moreover, his Dynamic Hard-hit rate has decreased substantially.

But on the other hand, there’s a Sweet Spot percentage of 44.1, which dwarfs Altuve’s career average of 33.3 percent. Additionally, making hard contact consistently has never been a part of his game. The difference this year is that when Altuve is squaring up pitches, he’s done so with more loft, as evidenced by his improved Barrel rate and optimal launch angle. Regression in the former is possible, but according to Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus, a hitter’s Barrel rate begins to stabilize at roughly 50 batted balls. Altuve has put 68 in play.

In terms of plate discipline, Altuve is laying off pitches at an adequate clip — his current Chase rate is one point below his career figure and is identical to 2021’s. It gives credence to the likelihood that Altuve will continue to take free passes fairly often, building on his 9.7 percent walk rate in 2021, the highest he’s registered in a full season.

A career BABIP of .328 indicates that this year’s BABIP of .246 is likely anomalous, and is presumably a key reason why Altuve’s batting average is relatively low at .259. His hamstring injury has ostensibly limited what he can do on the base paths, given the marked reduction in Sprint Speed (72nd percentile in 2021, 43rd percentile in 2022), but it might not impact Altuve’s overall output if he continues to make the right kind of contact.

The face of the Astros for a decade, Altuve has long been a marvel. At just 5-feet-6-inches, it’s remarkable that despite his tiny frame, he had such a precocious feel for contact and exhibited advanced bat control at a young age. Going on to develop plus power is an evolution that would’ve been unthinkable early in his career. Now into his 30s, he’s continued to adapt at the plate, if not outright improve.

Health permitting, 2022 is shaping up to be one of Altuve’s finest campaigns.