Jose Altuve Has Gotten His Groove Back

With one swing of his bat on a hanging slider from Aroldis Chapman, José Altuve untied Game 6 of the ALCS and sent the Astros to their second World Series in three years. In doing so, he joined some select company, becoming the fifth player in 50 years worth of League Championship Series to hit a pennant-winning walk-off home run, after current Yankees manager Aaron Boone (2003 against the Red Sox) as well as the Yankees’ Chris Chambliss (1976 against the Royals), the Tigers’ Magglio Ordonez (2006 against the A’s), and the Giants’ Travis Ishikawa (2014 against the Cardinals).

Altuve’s shot had an air of inevitability about it. While he has been surpassed by Alex Bregman as the team’s top position player — the two-year WAR totals for the pair are 16.1 for Bregman, 8.4 for Altuve — even at just 29 years old, he’s become something an elder statesman as well as a leader. He’s the longest-tenured Astro, having debuted in 2011, when the team was still in the National League and before Jeff Luhnow was general manager. His first three seasons featured a combined total of 324 losses, and while he was spared the first half of 2011 (he debuted on July 20), that’s a lot of losing for one person to endure, regardless of how one feels about the team’s choice of rebuilding strategies. Now he’s been part of teams that have won a combined total of 311 games over the past three years.

Altuve was by far the team’s best hitter during the ALCS, batting .348/.444/.652 with two homers (the other was off Luis Severino in Game 3) en route to MVP honors. His 1.097 OPS was 317 points higher than second-ranked Carlos Correa’s (.780, via a .182/.280/.500 line); Michael Brantley (.712, via a .304/.407/.304 line) was the only other Astro with an OPS of at least .700. The team hit a meager .179/.281/.318 for the series (by comparison, the Yankees hit .214/.289/.383), meaning that aside from Altuve, the rest of the Astros hit all of .157/.260/.275, a batting line that would embarrass Zack Greinke (.225/.263/.337 career). Actually, Greinke’s line bears a pretty strong resemblance to what the other Astros besides Altuve hit during the Division Series against the Rays (.228/.282/.338) while the second baseman was going bananas (.350/.381/.900 with three homers). At least in that series, he had a bit more help, as Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, and the catching tandem of Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado all had an OPS of .800 or better.

All of which is to say that 1) after a relatively down season, Altuve is in the midst of one of the best postseasons in recent memory, adding to an already impressive body of October work; and 2) despite an historic offense during the regular season, the Astros have not been particularly productive in the postseason, a thought worth bearing in mind as the World Series opens.

First, Altuve. Though he set a career high with 31 home runs, the pint-sized second baseman did not have his typically awesome year. His 3.5 WAR was his lowest total since 2013, as was his .298 batting average, while his .353 on-base percentage was his lowest since 2015. He played in just 124 games, his lowest mark since his rookie season. An early season slump that featured atypical contact woes — particularly on pitches outside the strike zone — culminated in Altuve taking a May 11 trip to the injured list for a left hamstring strain that was initially considered “slight,” though he wound up sidelined for 39 days. He struggled initially upon returning, but was generally much more Altuve-like:

Jose Altuve Before and After 2019 Injured List Stint
Split PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Through May 10 164 9 11.0% 15.2% .234 .243 .329 .472 113
June 19 onwards 384 22 6.0% 14.8% .330 .320 .363 .581 149
Overall 548 31 7.5% 15.0% .303 .298 .353 .550 138

Early in the year, Altuve was walking a lot — remember, he owns just a 6.6% career rate, with a high of 9.2% last year and a mark of 8.7% from 2016-18 — and hitting for power, but not much else. His .234 BABIP was 118 points below last year’s mark and 103 points below his current career mark. He was hitting the ball in the air much more often:

Altuve Batted Balls Before and After 2019 IL Stint
Split GB/FB GB% FB% EV LA wOBA xwOBA
Through May 10 1.18 45.3% 38.5% 87.3 13.7 .341 .346
June 19 onwards 1.72 51.7% 30.1% 85.6 6.9 .395 .346
Total 1.53 49.9% 32.5% 86.1 8.8 .379 .349
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Altuve has never been king of the exit velos; his best mark from the Statcast era is just 87.5 mph, set in 2016. His average launch angles have generally been around 10.0, with groundball rates in the high 40s and fly ball rates in the low 30s; as you can see, things were askew. Thanks to the home runs, his xwOBA was unchanged across the two periods, but his wOBA was much higher in the second because he was able to utilize his speed (his sprint speed ranks in the 86th percentile).

Note from the first table that Altuve’s strikeout rate was more or less unchanged across the split. His overall 15.0% mark was a career high, and while some of that was environmental — the result of a season with record strikeout rates, his normalized rate of 65 K%+ was a career high as well, four points above last year, five points above 2017, and nine points above his career mark, which is the majors’ ninth-lowest among players with at least 2000 PA since the start of 2011. This year’s strikeout rate remained more or less constant despite the fact that he actually went outside the zone more often after coming back from the injury. This time around, I’m including multiple years of his performance for context:

Altuve Plate Discipline Before and After 2019 IL Stint
Split O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2015 35.6% 71.9% 52.1% 81.7% 94.6% 89.8% 45.5% 5.3%
2016 32.7% 71.2% 49.1% 77.7% 91.3% 86.1% 42.6% 6.7%
2017 33.1% 67.8% 47.6% 74.9% 91.7% 84.9% 41.7% 7.2%
2018 33.3% 68.7% 47.3% 73.5% 91.0% 83.6% 39.6% 7.7%
Through May 10 25.9% 65.6% 41.9% 66.0% 88.1% 79.9% 40.2% 8.4%
June 19 onwards 35.7% 69.2% 49.0% 74.5% 86.4% 81.2% 39.7% 9.2%
2019 32.7% 68.1% 46.8% 72.5% 86.9% 80.8% 39.9% 9.0%

After returning, Altuve had far more success while going after such balls:

Altuve In and Out of Zone Before and After 2019 IL Stint
Split Z-AVG Z-SLG Z-wOBA O-AVG O-SLG O-wOBA
2015 .355 .551 .385 .218 .249 .270
2016 .367 .595 .404 .266 .378 .364
2017 .385 .653 .434 .258 .317 .356
2018 .337 .495 .356 .266 .344 .378
Through May 10 .280 .590 .364 .135 .135 .284
June 19 onwards .330 .631 .400 .280 .458 .370
2019 .315 .619 .388 .245 .381 .347
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

As Craig Edwards pointed out in mid-August, Altuve’s pre-slump woes probably owed something to a slow recovery from offseason surgery on his right knee, an injury that I had forgotten about at the time; he suffered an avulsion fracture of his right kneecap on July 25, 2018 while sliding into second base in Colorado, leading to a 26-game absence for what was then termed right knee soreness.

But now Altuve is back on the good foot, and burnishing his postseason credentials. Already, his 13 postseason home runs from the 2015, ’17, ’18, and ’19 postseasons are more than any other middle infielder save for Derek Jeter. Among players with at least 40 PA in one postseason during the Wild Card era, this year’s .767 slugging percentage ranks 10th (Carlos Beltran’s 1.022 mark with the Astros in 2004 is first), while his 1.184 OPS is 16th (Barry Bonds‘ 1.559 mark from 2002 is first). His five home runs are tied for 21st in that span, trailing teammate George Springer (six in 2017), his own 2017 mark (seven), and Beltran (eight in 2004) among others. With the World Series yet to play, he could add to those numbers and improve his standing, though doing so against the likes of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will make that no easy task.

He’ll need plenty of help from his teammates, however. While the Astros’ team wRC+ of 125 trailed only the 1927 Yankees’ 126 for the best since 1901, and while their .495 slugging percentage is tops during that span, they’ve hit .208/.287/.358 in October overall, numbers that respectively rank seventh, seventh, and eighth among the eight teams that reached the Division Series. For as much a juggernaut as they have been in 2019, they will have their hands quite full starting on Tuesday night, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that their six-time All-Star second baseman is back in the swing of things.

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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.

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All it took was sacrificing Yordan Alvarez.