As the Astros star approaches his fourth consecutive 200 hit season, his swing tells the story of his continued dominance.
Not that long ago, there was a debate over who should earn the American League MVP Award. Many were torn between Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros. While Judge captivated Yankees fans early on, prompting the fan-created “Judge’s Chambers,” he has struggled since his Home Run Derby victory.
Jose Altuve, on the other hand, has not experienced this type of prolonged slump. Since the All-Star Break, he has maintained his dominant offensive performance. He leads the MLB in batting average (.348), hits (195), and most importantly, has the highest WAR (7.7) amongst all qualifying players. In the American League, he leads all players in stolen bases (31), OPS+ (166), fWAR (6.4), rWAR (7.3), wOBA (.409), and wRC+ (161).
While Judge began to struggle, Altuve elevated his game, which resulted in him being named the American League Player of the Month in July.
In fact, Altuve’s July was one of the best months for a hitter since 2012 when ranked according to a hitter’s wRC+. When examining his overall offensive numbers, Altuve’s batting average, strikeout rate, and OBP are of particular note:
As the chart shows, Altuve was getting a hit nearly every other at-bat and found himself on base more than 50% of the time he came to the plate. The last time an offensive player had a batting average that topped Altuve’s in a single month was when Ivan Rodriguez batted .500 in June 2004.
Altuve’s outstanding season is matched only by the Astros’ success this year. They already clinched the American League West and looked primed to contend for the World Series.
Jose Altuve’s story is remarkable considering how he was overlooked by many early in his career, including his own employer. He was turned away the first day of open tryouts by team officials because of his short stature. When he came back the next day to try out, he was offered a minor league contract with a meager $15,000 signing bonus. Years later, Altuve is perhaps the best hitter in baseball.
So what has Altuve done this year that has propelled him to the top of the league in hitting? It all starts with his success against fastballs. Consider his hot zone chart below:
This season Altuve hasn’t shown a weakness in any part of the strike zone. He is making contact with higher frequency. The cause of this is due to small changes in his swing mechanics, which are evident when his swing in his rookie year is compared to his swing in 2017.
As the video shows, Altuve’s batting stance is a small crouch with the bat elevated slightly above his head. However, the notable observation in his swing is that he does not have a pronounced leg kick. Instead, he is sitting back in the box. When the pitcher releases the ball, it is noticeable how Altuve takes a small stride with his left foot, stops, and then swings at the ball.
His swing in his rookie year, therefore, shows that his swing did not utilize his power-hitting abilities well at that time. His swing in his rookie year involved him stopping for a brief moment after the small stride with his foot before restarting his swinging motion again. As a result, his swing only produced marginal power.
However, as you will notice this year, Altuve’s swing is now one fluid motion. His leg kick as he steps into his swing helps with his timing, which in turn helps him make better contact with the baseball and achieve more power:
As the video shows, his improved timing because of this leg kick has allowed him to achieve maximum power behind his swing and improve his ability to leverage his small 5’6’’ frame into more power.
Over the past couple years since he first adopted his new swing, Altuve has also seen a huge increase in his exit velocity, suggesting he is hitting the ball harder.
What also is worth noting about Altuve’s evolution as a hitter is his gradually increasing fly ball rates as well as his decreasing ground ball rates. As the next chart shows, Altuve’s ground ball rate decreased and became more noticeable once he adopted his new swing in 2014.
As a result of his increase in power, Altuve’s statistics show a positive change in his home run output, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+. His statistics also have already started a discussion as to whether Altuve may one day end up in Cooperstown.
His statistics show a player who is averaging over 200 hits a season, 38 steals a season, hitting significantly over .300, and carrying an OPS+ of 125 over his career, an above-average figure that is sure to rise if Altuve continues to hit the ball as well as he does. In all fairness, Altuve still has a long way to go before we can determine and project his Hall of Fame chances, but he is off to a good start.
However, what is evident is that Altuve’s swing has allowed him to lead the league in batting average while hitting for consistent power. At his current rate of production, Altuve may be one of the best players under 5’8’’ ever to play:
Whether he ends up being the best short player to play the game remains to be seen. However, it should be a no-brainer that by the time the season is over, Jose Altuve will easily win the AL Batting Title and the American League MVP Award, and I think people will find it nearly impossible to argue that he does not deserve it.
(All statistics are from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise stated.)
Edited by David Kaptzan.
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