It wouldn’t be hyperbole to view José Altuve as a unicorn.
Despite being 5 feet 6 inches — which is his listed height, probably not his actual height — Altuve has been a bona fide five-tool player for the better part of a decade and has a strong case for being the greatest second baseman of his generation.
1,854 hits, 181 home runs and 269 stolen bases have been collected by Altuve in his 11-plus seasons. As it currently stands, he is a career .306/.360/.464 hitter.
And now, thanks to a .275/.368/.518 slash line (17 home runs, 8 steals) in 2022, Altuve’s been selected to his eighth All-Star team.
In an era of baseball when the sport’s pitching has never been tougher, a player who is (probably) 5 feet 5 inches tall has been one of its best hitters. How improbable — if not impossible — does that seem conceptually?
Objectively speaking, Altuve’s level of success has been nothing short of a marvel. Looking back, I remember when he first became a notable name in the Astros farm system and how insignificant I thought his profile to be. Then in 2011, he started to garner meaningful attention on a national scale.
All he had done was hit and hit up until and including 2011 as he rose through the minor leagues. I specifically remember his first game at Double-A Corpus Christi on June 1, 2011. Not because he went 3-for-4 with a home run, but because his teammate, Jonathan Villar — who had been promoted with him — had also hit his first Double-A homer.
Altuve’s career production in the minors was superior, but Villar was an uber-toolsy prospect that the Astros had recently acquired from the Phillies in the high-profile Roy Oswalt trade. While raw at the plate, Villar’s overall abilities drew comparisons to superstar shortstop José Reyes. I was enamored by his talent and potential.
Altuve wasn’t quite an afterthought, but it was more difficult to get excited about a player who was so small in stature. That said, my opinion did change after Altuve participated in the 2011 Futures Game. At that time, he had become a fairly serious prospect, even earning a spot on ESPN’s Keith Law’s midseason top 50 prospects list.
But still, he was 5-foot-5.
After a challenging rookie season, Altuve broke out as a sophomore in his age-22 season, finishing the year with a .290/.340/.399 line along with 7 homers and 33 stolen bases. He made his first All-Star team that summer.
It was an impressive campaign, but still, I remained unconvinced that he would be a franchise player. The Astros were still in the dark days of their rebuild and were still investing heavily in their farm system, so I was of the mind that perhaps they should sell high on a player whose value had to be near its peak, since, of course, he was but 5-foot-5.
At this point, I still think we trade Altuve. He is an All-Star, but he's not someone you build your lineup around. I hope we trade him.— Dan (@Dan_Martin4) July 25, 2012
Fittingly, my (dumbest) tweet (of all time) would eventually be highlighted by the popular account @OldTakesExposed in 2017, right after the Astros had won the World Series.
As idiotic as it seems in hindsight, I did stand by that tweet for a little while, particularly during the 2013 season when Altuve slashed .283/.316/.363 and showed little to no progress developmentally.
He was young and was still adjusting to big-league pitching, but I still figured that he had more or less hit his ceiling. Why? Well, you already know why.
Then 2014 happened.
In his age-24 season, Altuve not only captured the American League batting title with a .341 average, but he led the AL in steals as well (56). He finished 13th in AL MVP voting.
After seeing such gaudy numbers, I vaguely remember thinking something along the lines of: “OK, maybe he can be that good.”
The rest is history.
I always thought that his incredible 2017 season that saw him secure the AL MVP wouldn’t be topped. It was just too productive of a season — without the help of the trash cans — that happened to culminate perfectly for the Astros in the end — with the help of the trash cans.
Now halfway through the 2022 season, aged 32, Altuve has registered what would be his highest wRC+ since 2017 and leads all second basemen in that category. Additionally, he’s tied for second in fWAR at the keystone, and he’s done it without hitting for an average well over .300 like he used to. He’s done it by becoming a formidable power hitter, and is on pace to eclipse his career-high home run mark of 31.
Considering his age, the caliber of arms he regularly faces and how he’s had to adapt his game at the plate, Altuve’s 2022 season could be viewed as his most impressive yet. He’s seemingly traded in or at least downgraded his 80-grade hit tool in exchange for plus power, as if it were something that could be done so easily. It would’ve been an unfathomable evolution many years ago, something that would not have seemed physically possible for Altuve. After all, he’s only 5-foot-5.
A 5-foot-5 unicorn.