A rough stretch for Jose Altuve has hit a new bump. The Astros’ second baseman, who has been scuffling considerably for the past three weeks, left Friday night’s game during the first inning shortly after legging out an infield hit. While manager A.J. Hinch called the injury a “slight strain of his hamstring,” the team has opted to play it safe by placing the 29-year-old former MVP on the injured list for just the second time in his career, thus forestalling the end of his current slump.
Via MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart, “Altuve said he felt his muscle tighten when he was running to first base and then became worried when the hamstring continued to bother him while he was getting his secondary lead off first base.” Rather than sit Altuve for a few days, the Astros opted to replace him on the active roster. Said Hinch:
“When you have these three-, five-, seven-day injuries, they always last longer than you think. We’ve gone through this with [Altuve] before. We’ve gone through this with Alex [Bregman]. We went through this with George [Springer]. These quads and hammies and calves, as soon as you think it’s four or five days, you probably should err on the side of caution and put them on the injured list and play with a full team.”
With a 27-15 record and a 6.5-game lead in the AL West through Monday, the Astros can afford to be cautious, particularly if the break provides Altuve a chance to reset his season. A six-time All-Star and a career .314/.364/.454 hitter, he’s batting a meager .169/.289/.299 over his past 90 plate appearances, dating back to April 17. Propped up by nine homers — compared to 13 all last season — his overall batting line (.243/.329/.472 in 164 plate appearances) is still respectable; his 119 wRC+ is tied for sixth among all second basemen, just seven points below his career mark and 16 points below last year. The likes of Brian Dozier (.197/.301/.331, 72 wRC+) or Robinson Cano (.261/.315/.399, 97 wRC+) would gladly swap stats, though in the context of Altuve’s career, the shape of his current production is somewhat unsettling.
As the owner of the majors’ second-highest batting average (.314) since his 2011 debut and a top-20 wRC+ (141) since 2014, when he first emerged as a true offensive force, the pint-sized hit machine is just not a player we’re used to seeing struggle. His current slide covers 22 games, and for as arbitrary as its length may be, it’s the most frigid 22-game stretch of his career in terms of batting average, and among the frostiest in terms of wRC+:
So what gives? For starters, there’s been an unusual amount of swing-and-miss in the contact-oriented Altuve’s game. He is whiffing on 8.4% of all pitches and striking out 15.2% of the time. Both of those marks are career highs, well above his lifetime norms (6.1% and 11.2%), though given the ever-creeping rise in strikeout rates, some additional context is required. Putting his strikeout rate in league-indexed terms using our new Plus stats, his 55 K%+ — that’s 45 percent below league average — from 2011-18 puts him in the 94th percentile among qualifiers for the period. This year’s career-high mark of 67 is merely in the 76th percentile. Meanwhile, despite a slight rise in average exit velocity relative to last year (from 86.3 mph to 87.3) and only a slight drop in xwOBA on contact (from .378 to .363), his .234 BABIP is 104 points below his career norm and 118 points below last year. Something is definitely amiss.
Altuve has earned a reputation as one of the game’s great bad-ball hitters. Indeed, his .247 batting average on pitches outside the strike zone ranks second during the Statcast era, his .313 slugging percentage 16th (both out of 265 hitters with at least 300 such batted balls 2015-19). Given that, and his current contact woes, one might infer that he’s been a bit more prone to chasing pitches outside of the zone, yet in this case, the opposite is true; his 25.9% chase rate is a career low, down 7.4 points from last year and down 8.2 points from his career mark. That said, when he does swing at pitches outside the zone, he’s making contact just 66% of the time. You may have guessed it: that’s also a career low, down 7.5 points from last year and 12.3 points from his career mark.
On April 30, Hinch described Altuve as “a little overanxious at the plate,” adding, “He gets into swing mode and, if he’s not using his lower half right, he gets a little rotational and he gets a little overanxious to swing… I think he gets a little anxious and gets outside the strike zone.”
Eight days after those initial comments, and two days after Altuve slammed his helmet down following a strikeout, Hinch said, “He still has the home runs and has driven runs in. It’s the hit total that is down for him, and the more he sees that the more he has swung a little bit wildly around the strike zone and putting balls in play that aren’t necessarily the ones he wants… We have to try to (address) whatever issue he is having with his body control and some of his bat path.”
Finding numbers that jibe exactly with what Hinch has said isn’t easy, in part because we’re talking about a moving target; Altuve kept digging himself into a deeper hole after the first statement above. What’s apparent is that he’s not getting his typical results either inside or outside the zone.
For starters, here are two pairs of Statcast heat maps shown from the catcher’s point of view, so the right-handed-swinging Altuve is to the left of each grid. The first pair shows Altuve’s swing percentage and whiff percentage for 2018:
Swing-wise, the entire strike zone is some shade or other of red, and the areas outside the zone are purple to dark red. Whiff-wise, within the zone he’s red low and inside, and up and away — these are what passes for the holes in his swing — but purple to blue elsewhere; outside the zone, he’s red, red, red. Now for 2019, which amounts to a bit less than a quarter-season:
Swing-wise, the zone is all red, and the bottom half of the outside area is almost identical to 2019, but he’s really laying off that high-and-outside area. Whiff-wise, he’s got an alarming rate in the center of the zone, and very high rates on the outer third; meanwhile, he’s hardly missing in the upper half outside the strike zone, but he’s missing like crazy on the lower half. And now for the payoff…
With a few patchy exceptions, just about everything came up Milhouse for Altuve 2018, both in and out of the zone. Either he hit well enough to justify chasing, or he laid off and drew walks. That hasn’t been the case in 2019; outside the zone, he’s getting good results only down-and-in. Elsewhere, he’s either not making enough good contact or not enough contact, period.
Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of Altuve’s performance on pitches in and out of the strike zone:
Altuve’s batting average on pitches in the zone is down 57 points relative to last year and 81 points relative to his combined 2015-18 performance; even so, it’s been offset by a higher slugging percentage because of the homers. It’s his contact with pitches outside the zone where the numbers look particularly grim; removing the non-contact plate appearances, he’s 5-for-28 (.179) on such balls this year, all singles, where last year, he was 40-for-119 (.336) with a .437 slugging percentage.
Of course, 28 balls in play is a small sample size. And maybe that’s all this is — bad results in a small sample size, with a combination of the anxiousness and bad habits that Hinch reported manifesting themselves all over his stat line. While Altuve’s ground-ball rate has been relatively consistent (46.0% last year, 45.3% this year), he’s hitting the ball in the air more often (jumping from 30.0% to 38.5%) and has already equaled last year’s total of infield fly outs, with eight; that’s a rate of 5.9% last year but 17.5% this year, nearly eight points above his career high. He’s pulling the ball more often than ever (53.3%, up from 41.4% last year), and his rate of pulled fly balls has nearly doubled relative to last year (from 15.1% of those pulls to 27.4%); he’s already got eight home runs via that route, compared to 10 all of last year.
Those homers are keeping his production from falling through the floor, but this isn’t the Jose Altuve that most of us regard so fondly, the guy who collected at least 200 hits for four straight seasons (2014-17) before last year’s 26-day DL stint due to right knee soreness curtailed his streak. This version hasn’t been a lot of fun lately — particularly not relative to the guy who hit .328/.378/.672 through April 16 before going into a nosedive — but it’s probably premature to sound the alarm bells. It would certainly be nice if he could quickly return to the hit parade that may one day send him to Cooperstown (I’ll save a deeper dive into that topic for another day). For perhaps the remainder of the month, the Astros will make do with some combination of Aledmys Diaz and Yuli Gurriel manning the keystone, and in the meantime, we can all hope that Altuve can get his head and mechanics in order while he works his way back.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.