Jose Altuve Is Back To Being Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve had the worst season of his career in 2020, hitting .219/.268/.344 in 48 games for the Astros for a 77 wRC+ and a near-replacement 0.2 WAR. It didn’t keep Houston from making the playoffs — albeit in a 16-team format with the Astros finishing below .500 — but his annus horribilis was one of the reasons the team dropped to 14th in the majors in runs scored, their worst showing since 2016. As a franchise cornerstone, the organization’s longest-tenured player, and the target of still-mysterious buzzer allegations, he naturally absorbed quite a lot of the heat generated by the sign-stealing scandal. To many, it was a case of just deserts, a cheater watching his legacy fade before his eyes. But reality cares not for made-for-TV storylines. In 2021, Altuve — and by extension the Astros — is having a great year.

A star falling off a cliff in their early 30s isn’t typical, but it does happen, and without any complications from getting caught stealing signs. One of the many cases that jumps out to me is that of Steve Sax, who went from having a nearly 50% chance of 3,000 hits in Bill James’ Favorite Toy to losing his job in the space of about a year; Sax faced more comical allegations of chicanery than Altuve. And one of this generation’s shining beacons of weapons-grade awesomeness, Albert Pujols, had a turning point in his early 30s when he transformed from Jimmie Foxx into Darin Ruf. Altuve did have a couple of relatively minor leg injuries in 2020, but neither could explain a season dreadful enough to have no silver lining.

Like Sax 30 years ago, a projection system (ZiPS in this case) had Altuve on an approach pattern to 3,000 hits. The combined effect of a shortened season and a performance that raised serious concerns about his future more than halved that milestone probability, from 40% to 19%. ZiPS, like the other projection systems, projected Altuve to have a significant bounce-back season in 2021, forecasting a .289/.355/.478, 3.6 WAR campaign. Most players would be quite happy with that result, but that line would only be a return to Altuve’s 2019 level, a drop from his 2014-2018 peak.

Altuve’s never been an exit velocity superstar — he’s not going to be a stunt double for the Incredible Hulk — but he still amassed a lot of offensive value over the years, thanks to being one of the most stubborn outs in baseball. He’s long been one of the best bad-ball hitters in the majors. Statcast defines the zones on the border of the zone as the “Shadow” zone, and entering 2020, he was a career .242 hitter in these locations, nearly a hundred points better than the league average of .149. The next zone out, the “Chase” zone, tells a similar story, with him hitting .179 vs. league-average .089. Altuve was simply getting more than his fair share of extra hits where pitchers get their strikeouts. But unlike a lot of bad-ball hitters, he could happily punish pitchers for staying in the strike zone, too.

Those characteristics disappeared in 2020. Altuve hit .229 and slugged .314 against pitches in the heart of the strike zone, a far cry from the average player’s .310 average and .577 slugging percentage. After regularly averaging a launch angle of 11-13 degrees on those pitches from 2015-19, his launch angle dropped to four degrees in 2020. A bad-ball hitter who hits weak grounders on crushable pitches is more Ozzie Guillen than Jose Altuve.

Those numbers have rebounded so far in 2021. On pitches in the heart of the zone, Altuve’s back to his prime numbers, hitting .343 and slugging .676. He’s also not doing it the same way he used to; his launch angle on these pitches has jumped from a career-low of four degrees to a career-high of 17 degrees, and his exit velocity numbers are up across the board. Altuve’s hitting like the good ol’ days, but he’s not quite the same type of hitter he used to be. He’s hitting more fly balls and swinging less often, both at good pitches and bad. His contact numbers aren’t back to his best years; he’s simply being more selective and making better contact without falling into the passivity trap.

As such, his long-term projections have rebounded:

ZiPS Projection – Jose Altuve
2022 .287 .356 .490 520 93 149 24 2 26 76 53 9 127 -3 3.7
2023 .283 .352 .486 494 86 140 24 2 24 71 49 8 124 -5 3.2
2024 .280 .346 .475 472 80 132 22 2 22 66 45 7 120 -6 2.6
2025 .273 .337 .447 447 72 122 19 1 19 60 41 6 110 -7 1.8
2026 .269 .330 .436 417 64 112 17 1 17 53 36 6 106 -8 1.2
2027 .263 .319 .412 388 56 102 14 1 14 46 30 5 97 -10 0.4
2028 .255 .306 .387 349 47 89 11 1 11 37 23 4 87 -11 -0.4
2029 .246 .292 .352 256 32 63 7 1 6 24 15 2 74 -10 -0.9

The mean projection gets him to around 2,700 hits, with the chance of 3,000 hits back up to 31%. That’s still not where he was before 2020, but one-in-three is a puncher’s chance. Whether 3,000 hits is now enough to get him into Cooperstown is an argument we can have in 12-15 years or so.

Naturally, there will be a healthy dose of suspicion about Altuve’s comeback given the history, and that’s perfectly fair. I’m not of the belief that the sign-stealing really turned out to be all that beneficial, but the problem with cheating isn’t just the results, it’s the intent. Even if Houston’s scheme was of no real benefit, similar to corked bats, the intent is what matters. There’s no doubt that if Altuve makes the All-Star Game, the boos will be deafening. But if redemption can come through quality play, Jose Altuve appears to be putting together a strong case.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

He’s back to being that cute little boy who was too embarrassed to have his shirt taken off. /s

Cave Dameron
1 year ago
Reply to  descender

Post a shirtless pic of yourself coward.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
1 year ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

Don’t see why that would be a problem.