It was a strange start to the season, you’ll remember. Even though the Astros, as a whole, were completely disappointing, Jose Altuve came out absolutely on fire. He put up numbers you’d expect from some elite-level slugger, and on May 5, he bashed his ninth home run. That put him on pace for something like 50, and though Altuve was never going to get all the way to 50, he was impossible not to notice. He already had the remarkable bat-to-ball skills. To that, he was adding selective strength. Call it a superstar turn.
It’s overly simplistic, but when you look at Altuve, you don’t see a home-run hitter. I shouldn’t need to explain why. The extent of the power was hard to believe, and now you could say things have calmed down: Last night, Altuve hit his first dinger in a month. I want to talk about that dinger, but more importantly, I want to talk about the process that led to that dinger. It’s not that Altuve’s start was a mirage. It’s that he was getting opportunities they’re not giving him anymore.
Look at this home run. Sure, it wasn’t an upper-decker, but still.
That’s Jose Altuve to the opposite field. There’s one way to understand the significance of his season — he already has four opposite-field home runs. In his career, through last season, he had a combined total of one. He is stronger, or at least, he is better at putting his strength into his swing. He’s been getting new results.
Watch the clip again, now, and this time watch the pitch. Pay attention to the location. That pitch was actually a little off the plate, away. From Baseball Savant, here are all the pitches that Altuve has hit out.
Yesterday’s home run is the point on the right. It wasn’t the first outside pitch Altuve has hit out, but it was the most outside pitch Altuve has hit out, and he hit it to right field. As you’d expect for a hitter with Altuve’s build, the bulk of his power has come against pitches over the inner half. Those are the ones he’s been able to turn on. The group gets thinner and thinner as you move over the plate away.
To move this all forward: Recent home run aside, Altuve has hit for power over the inner half. He started this season looking very powerful, but over the past month or so, the power has been replaced by more singles. I wouldn’t say Altuve is in a slump. I’d say pitchers have changed how they’re pitching to him. This plot should be simple to understand. I’ve looked at Altuve’s entire career, in 500-pitch rolling groups, and for each group I’ve calculated an average horizontal location. Zero is the middle of the plate, and a negative number means an inside average location. A positive number means an outside average location. The units are feet. Here you go:
Constant fluctuation. That’s baseball. Adjustments on adjustments on adjustments. But you see there to the right — pitchers have moved their pitches away from Altuve, and they’ve done that to an extreme degree. Over Altuve’s first 500 pitches this season, the average pitch was 1.4 inches away from the middle of the plate. Over Altuve’s last 500 pitches this season, the average pitch has been 5.4 inches away from the middle of the plate. This is the most away pitchers have ever gone, and if that doesn’t prove the point well enough, this’ll help. Here are two pitch-location heat maps, showing Altuve this season, splitting his year so far in half.
Sometimes, with heat maps like this, you have to be guided to seeing the point the author is trying to make. There’s nothing real subtle about this. On the left, you see pitchers challenging Altuve over the plate. Then Altuve hit the crap out of the ball, so pitchers responded by moving away. On the right, you see almost all the red over or beyond the outer half. Altuve yesterday homered on a pitch beyond the outer half, but that’s not something he’s done a lot of. Pitchers have clearly moved to try to neutralize Altuve’s pop.
Altuve, in turn, has had to change his own approach. His early success was in part built on discipline and waiting for a pitch he could drive. But he can’t just ignore all these pitches away. So now here are the same heat maps, but this time showing Altuve’s swing rates.
Altuve has had to swing at more pitches away. He’s also swung more at pitches in, perhaps because he doesn’t know how often he’ll get the chance. In a sense, as pitchers have adjusted, Altuve has reverted more to his old self. His career swing rate has long been around 50%. Early this year, that dropped to 40%. Over the past month, he’s back to 50%. Altuve’s patience was more of an April thing, but it’s only gone away because pitchers have changed it up after Altuve took advantage of them.
One of the funny things: Altuve has become less productive, but he hasn’t become un-productive. Through the first half of his year to date, he had a 197 wRC+. Since then, he’s run a 125 wRC+, with about the same walks but half the strikeouts. Altuve hasn’t seen very many pitches he can drive for power, so he’s settled for singles. He’s been proving his own plate coverage, and maybe this’ll show that. Here’s an Altuve swing early:
Here’s Altuve’s home-run swing from Monday:
Altuve is always a little closed off, but in the Monday image, you can see how badly he wanted to hit the ball hard to right. Look at his front foot — he stepped on the line of the batter’s box. Altuve has been kind of cheating to better cover pitches away, and he’s done that because he’s been pitched away. That’s how he’s been able to adjust and stay productive despite not showing much power. Altuve this year, in other words, has covered the inner half, and he’s covered the outer half. He hasn’t covered them equally well, but he’s looking like a hitter who doesn’t have a clear weakness.
Batters heat up and batters cool off, and they do that in part because pitchers change how they pitch. If pitchers sense that Altuve is cheating too much to cover the plate away, they’ll come back in. Then Altuve might take a few days or weeks to adjust to that, but then he’d be looking at pitches in his power zone. Which could take us right back to April. Which all leads to the realization that Jose Altuve is tremendously difficult to pitch to. He can hit for power now when he has the chance, and when he doesn’t, he can hit for contact and singles. That puts pitchers in a bind, because it’s a no-win situation. There’s not much left for Jose Altuve to figure out.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.