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The Historically Great Jose Altuve

Brian Blanco - Getty Images

A scorching July has Jose Altuve in the thick of the AL MVP race. But his remarkable young career is the real story.

Everyone had a good laugh during Fourth of July weekend when the Houston Astros played the New York Yankees. All 6’7, 282 lbs. of Yankees rookie Aaron Judge stood next to the diminutive (5’6, 165 lbs) Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, and hilarity ensued.

Stop me if you have heard a “Jose Altuve is short” joke before. Even the New York Times talked up the small stature of the All-Star second baseman. Just like people love to gawk at the gargantuan Judge, they are also quick to praise the petite Altuve. Even then, outside of his Houston home Altuve and his remarkable season have hardly received the same coverage as Judge’s rookie campaign.

Yet when Judge awoke on Tuesday, July 25th he was, for the first time in months, looking up at Jose Altuve.

On Monday night, the Astros thumped the Philadelphia Phillies, 13-4. Altuve went 4-4 with a walk, two doubles, three runs scored and three RBI. That bumped his batting average up to .365, tops in the American League. Regarding Judge, the four-hit night also put Altuve above the Yankees outfielder in both FanGraphs WAR (5.5 fWAR) and Baseball-Reference WAR (5.7 bWAR) for the first time since April. The battle for the AL MVP is, almost too fittingly, David versus Goliath, and David just took the lead.

Much has been made of the Aaron Judge slump after the All-Star break, but the tightening of this awards race has more to do with just how good Altuve has been over the past few weeks. Maybe you know that he is hitting .507 (!) in July, or that he is hitting .433 on the road, or that his OPS (1.005) would be the highest for a second baseman since Jeff Kent (1.021) in 2001. Altuve has not yet hit below .300 for any month of 2017, so it is no surprise that he is still swinging a hot stick into the summer.

Nor is Altuve a one-season wonder. He has been worth more than five wins per season (by fWAR) over the last three years. Since 2014, his .336 batting average is miles ahead of second-place (Michael Brantley at .314). In this same span, he is the only player with 50+ homers (61) and 100+ stolen bases (145). And he has one of the team-friendliest contracts in baseball, earning just $4.5 million this year and kept under team control for the next two years thanks to club options of $6 million and $6.5 million, respectively.

Altuve is great. The 66-33 Astros are great. In fact, Houston has three of the top-five position players by WAR in the AL, and Altuve now leads them all. Naturally, being the best player on the league’s best team is a good case for any Most Valuable Player contender. Judge could very well pick it up again and Mike Trout could make the MVP run we all expect him to make, but for now the frontrunner is the man to whom no one would yell, “Down in front!”

Altuve is in the limelight for his recently unbelievable performance, but what we are failing to acknowledge is that he is quickly becoming a historically great player. On a macro scale, he is achieving feats far more impressive than the hottest month in recent memory. Consider this nugget: this year Altuve is on pace for 232 hits, which would once again lead the American League. He is already one of just eight players to lead his league in hits for three straight seasons. If he holds out for the rest of 2017, he would join just Ichiro Suzuki as the only other player to record the most hits in the league in four consecutive seasons. With Jose Ramirez in second place and 20 hits behind, it is a good bet that Altuve joins this elite club.

Is there any chance Altuve can catch the Hit King himself? Reaching Pete Rose’s mark of 4,256 hits is highly unlikely, but Altuve compares favorably to a young Charlie Hustle. Moreover, as Dayn Perry in that last article pointed out, Altuve has a great chance of cracking 3,000 hits by the end of his career. The somewhat-dated Bill James Career Assessment tool gives him a 43% chance of attaining that famous baseball milestone.

If you want a more contemporary comparison, consider compering Altuve and Robinson Cano through their age-27 seasons. Cano, the 2017 All-Star Game MVP whose Hall of Fame case continues to pick up steam, slashed .309/.347/.489 through his age-27 season with an OPS+ of 117. Jose Altuve is at .317/.362/.451, and sports a better OPS+ (125). Even in a more potent offensive environment than that of Cano’s early career, Altuve is still the better hitter above the average.

Now, Altuve might not remain superhuman forever. First, take a look at his batting average based on pitch location, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Image titleThat is a lot of red, and red is good. But then there is his exit velocity zone chart:

Image titleLess red, more blue, and blue is bad. Altuve simply does not hit the ball all that hard (86.48 MPH), falling below the average Major League exit velocity (87.68 MPH) by more than a full tick of the radar gun. Even with his speed, his .390 BABIP looks highly unsustainable. If he falls to his career rate of .339, he will still be the high-average, high-speed hitter we know and love. Unfortunately, he will not always be the pint-sized prizefighter knocking all challengers out of the ring like he is at the moment.

Still, Jose Altuve is having a season for the ages, and we have been too slow to notice. He spent the first three months of the season in the colossal shadow of Aaron Judge, but he is breaking out to become the AL MVP front-runner. Arguably, Altuve spent the last four years in the shadow of another AL West titan named Mike Trout. As much as we gush over Trout’s greatness, it would be a sin to ignore the kind of career Altuve is carving out for himself. The little guy has a not-so-little chance to count himself among the top-10 second basemen when all is said and done.

All statistics are accurate as of Tuesday, July 25th and were obtained from Baseball-Reference, Baseball Savant, and FanGraphs, respectively.

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

Before Jose Altuve (2014-2015), who was the last player to lead the American League in stolen bases in back-to-back seasons?
Created 7/26/17
  1. Carl Crawford
  2. Ichiro Suzuki
  3. Jacoby Ellsbury
  4. Rickey Henderson

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