Jose Altuve's origin story is mythic, in the most literal sense of the word. Some claim the tiny Venezuelan was cut after his first Astros tryout, “told not to come back by evaluators who couldn't see past his height.” Others contend that Houston scouts sent the 16-year-old home “because they thought he was lying about his age,” and so the second baseman showed up the next day, birth certificate in hand. Whatever the case, Altuve impressed Houston special assistant Al Pedrique, and signed his first professional contract before the 2007 season, for $15,000. He proceeded to hit the tar off the ball at the club’s pathbreaking (and now shuttered) academy. Ricky Bennett, then the Astros’ farm director, recently told The Ringer about his first impressions. “For five days I watched Jose, and I couldn't take my eyes off him. He played the game with such flash, such passion. He was always in the right place at the right time. I wanted to take him home with me.”
To the States Altuve went; from low-level minor leaguer to MLB starter, league-wide curiosity to legitimate MVP candidate. With a month and change remaining in the regular season, and the Astros clinging to their shrinking playoff hopes, let’s pause for a second and reflect on his remarkable 2016, the best season for a player 5’6” or shorter in three generations, and the summer that Altuve fully arrived.
It started with the introduction of a leg kick, which he incorporated three years ago, and which improved his timing. Then he dedicated himself to an “off-season program that included cardio, agility training and heavy workouts for the legs.” At the dish, he eased up on his wildest free-swinging tendencies; he’s doubled his walk rate (from measly 4.8 to a respectable 9.0) and reduced his O-swing rate, the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone, to its lowest level since 2012. Add it all up, and you see a demonstrable power surge for a player who still rarely strikes out. A slugger, in other words, without the whiffing downside.
Through August 25, Altuve has clubbed 20 home runs 37 doubles, and his jump in isolated power, from .80 in 2013 (poor) to .210 (premiere) is an astonishing accomplishment, especially considering his stature. (Only one other player that small has ever hit 20 homers in a single season, Hall of Famer Hack Wilson.) Nobody in baseball has posted a higher OPS+, a catch-all offensive stat that adjusts for conditions at a player’s home ballpark. Not Mike Trout, not David Ortiz, not Kris Bryant. Nadie.
Here’s the most interesting paradox about our hometown hero: though skilled at stealing bases, Altuve is actually a terrible baserunner.
The excellent Jeff Sullivan has tracked this trend at Fangraphs, using UBR, a stat that tries to assess the value a player adds to his team on the base paths. “Base stealing is more about pattern recognition, acceleration, and timing,” Sullivan writes. “Baserunning has more to do with risk/reward decision-making, fluidity, and instincts.” Altuve has all of the former, and lacks most of the latter. To wit: his career steal percentage is north of 77 percent, good for 96th in MLB history. He’s swiped 26 bags this season, and he’s only been caught seven times. But his UBR of -3.0 is the 10th worst in baseball, only lagging behind lumbering veterans like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Napoli, and Albert Pujols.
Sullivan has an apt analogy: “Remember that kid on your little league team who, every time he got a hit, only stopped running when he either (a) was tagged out or (b) scored? Altuve is kind of like the grown-up version of that kid.” Think how good he’d be if some dad would tell him to cool it every so often.
Just over a week ago, in his 786th game, Altuve notched his 1,000th career hit, a sharp liner down the third-base line. He reached that milestone faster than Pete Rose, MLB’s (contested) all-time hits leader, and at a younger age than 22 of 30 members in the sport’s vaunted 3,000 hit club. He’s excellent, and young, and getting better.
He’s also ridiculously cheap. Like, stain-on-the-bargain-basement-sweater cheap. To date, the Astros have paid Altuve $8,238,700. He’s locked up for 2017, at $4.5 million, and eligible for (team-friendly) club options in both 2018 ($6 million) and 2019 ($6.5 million). Cumulatively, that’s $25 million or so on the books.
How does that value translate on the open market? Every additional Win Above Replacement (WAR) costs a franchise $7.7 million, according to recent estimates from FiveThirtyEight. So, at 7.3 WAR (and counting) in 2016, Altuve has generated a $31 million surplus for the front office, this season alone. He could sit on the bench, night after night, from today until September 2019, and he’d still be a profitable player.
Giving that tiny teenager a shot, however it went down, was one of the best decisions the Astros ever made.