Perhaps we ought to have have written more about Jose Altuve at FanGraphs this season.
The last, and only, FanGraphs post dedicated solely to Altuve this year was published on Aug. 4, when the excellent Craig Edwards documented Altuve’s historic July and his MVP momentum.
Perhaps part of the reason there hasn’t been an avalanche of Altuve content is this: what more is there to say? Altuve is really good. We know he’s really good. One thing that has remained constant in this rapidly changing world is the sight of Altuve spraying line drives all over major-league outfields. He remains one of the best pure hitters in the sport, one who added power to his game beginning in 2015 and whose power spiked again in 2016 and 2017. Altuve is going to get his 200 hits, he’s going to make contact at an elite rate, and he’s going to defy the expectations created by his small stature.
Altuve has become so good, so steady, we — or, at least this author — generally turn our attention elsewhere to new trends, pop-up players, air-ball revolutionaries, etc.
But Altuve himself is evolving. He’s making gains as a power hitter (as you’re probably aware) and in other areas that are perhaps less obvious. And Altuve demanded our attention on Thursday afternoon in the Astros’ ALDS opener, recording three home runs, including two off of Chris Sale.
While the Astros and Altuve will obviously take the performance, it’s the kind of day that could have perhaps swayed MVP voters had it occurred a week earlier. It’s remarkable that the game’s largest man, Aaron Judge, and smallest, Altuve, are the AL MVP frontrunners and have produced nearly the same value despite occupying completely opposite ends of the physical spectrum.
Altuve’s first home run was remarkable, coming on an elevated 97 mph fastball from Sale.
His next plate appearance against Sale concluded very similarly. In the fourth inning, Altuve once again ripped a fastball over the left-field wall for a home run.
The Houston second baseman struck again in the late innings, taking a forceful hack at an offspeed pitch from rookie Austin Maddox…
Altuve has always been an excellent contact hitter, posting 90%-plus zone-contact rates and single-digit swinging-strike rates, but it’s how he has improved against the fastball, driving it with more authority, that has propelled him from batting-crown contender to MVP candidate.
Consider Altuve’s work against fastballs in 2013, a season in which he posted an overall isolated-slugging mark of .080. It marked the fourth time over his first four years in the league that he’d posted a .112 or less (data courtesy Brooks Baseball):
And then consider Altuve’s work against fastballs in 2017:
Altuve has clearly become a better fastball hitter. That shows up in the Pitch Info linear weights, too, where Altuve has gone from recording slightly above-average numbers against the fastball earlier in his career to elite ones over the past few years. He ranked 15th in the sport by that measure this season.
Altuve has expanded the size of the area where he damages fastballs, too. Consider Altuve’s slugging per fastball in 2013, back before he started adding a power element to his game.
And then consider his slugging per pitch and location in 2017:
It’s expanded. He’s doing more damage out over the plate. Is the juiced ball playing a role? Perhaps. But this is also a hitter who looks more geared for power at times.
OK, I promise, we are through the GIF-and-chart portion of the post.
Altuve is one sample, one loud bit of evidence, that a good hitter can learn to develop power. Altuve wasn’t trying to hit singles up the middle against Sale, he was taking healthy hacks. He has undoubtedly learned how to translate more power into his game.
But what’s also interesting is that Altuve has improved against fastballs even as the average fastball velocity he has faced has increased. The average fastball Altuve faced in 2013 traveled 92.7 mph. This season? 93.5 mph. So the time allotted to Altuve between the pitcher’s release of the ball and his own decision to swing has decreased, yet his performance against the pitch has improved.
Altuve is perhaps also evidence of how hitters are adapting against fastball velocity. It was research from former Driveline Baseball intern Anthony Brady that I found so interesting in a piece last month, this idea that hitters are not actually making conscious choices when deciding if or when to swing against elite velocity. Rather, a sort of muscle memory takes over. It’s something akin to a refined, automated process.
“It is believed that the brain assesses and understands the information about the pitch coming in (spin, velocity, and trajectory), makes a deliberate decision whether to proceed with the swing, and then decides upon a location to place the bat all while the pitch is on its way to the plate. While the human brain has the capability to work incredibly fast, it can’t quite work that fast. The perception-action coupling theory when applied to hitting argues that information is not necessarily “understood”; rather, it is detected (the hitter sees the baseball pitch coming in), and then affordances are perceived (your opportunities for mechanical action, swing/no-swing). The information is not really ever understood, and there is no deliberate decision to swing. Much like a computer program algorithm, the visual stimuli are perceived and a physical action output is generated based on that environmental perception.”
Perhaps Altuve has become a better fastball hitter because he’s an elite eye-hand athlete who has seen so many fastballs that he’s added neural bandwidth. Maybe that’s at the root of how good hitters add power, how good hitters become MVP candidates.
Altuve has always been a curiosity, a marvel, due to his lack of size. He’s lately become unquestionably great. He’s also perhaps shedding some light in how hitters adapt, evolve, and improve, about what allows the smallest player in the game to become one of its greatest stars.