Following the final game of the regular season, Jose Altuve told a small group of reporters that once October rolls around, “everybody starts with zero wins and zero losses, and everybody’s average is zero.”
Nearly a month later, the Astros are even-steven with the Dodgers in the World Series and Altuve’s average (.322) is farther above zero than anyone’s in the postseason (minimum 20 at bats). That’s hardly a surprise. The 27-year-old second baseman captured his third American League batting title this year, hitting a career high .346. He doesn’t consider it his biggest personal accomplishment to date.
“That would be the Silver Slugger,” Altuve told the scribes, citing an honor he was awarded last year. “With the batting title, they only care if you hit .300/.320, but the Silver Slugger is all around — doubles, triples, home runs — and I’m 5’ 5” and 160 pounds.”
His numbers have been anything but Lilliputian. Over the past four seasons, the Venezuelan spark plug has a .334/.384/.496 slash line and 254 extra-base hits. And while he leads MLB in one-base hits over that same period, it’s not as though singles are a bad thing.
Nor is a high batting average, despite its decline in prominence.
“It has been marginalized,” said A.J. Hinch of the once lionized stat. “We prefer doubles, triples, homers, and a high OPS, but getting hits is hard. With the defenses — the way people shift — and with velocity and the way pitchers attack weaknesses… to continue to get hits in the face of all of that is remarkable.”
Does a high batting average deserve more respect than it now gets?
“I think anything players do on the field deserves respect,” responded the Houston skipper. “Sometimes we take for granted what we’re actually watching, because of what we prefer.”
Thursday’s article on Tony Kemp made mention of how he’s essentially blocked by the aforementioned Altuve. How well can this year’s Triple-A hits leader be expected to perform if and when he gets consistent big league at bats? I posed that question to Hinch, and his answer was insightful as always.
“I think the biggest question Tony would have is how they would defend him at the major league level versus how they defend him at the minor league level,” said Hinch. “When the defenses get so specific to where you generally hit the ball, some of your strengths get taken away and adjustments have to be made. Given how he’s controlled the strike zone, and his bat-to-ball skills, he deserves an opportunity to be tested.”
In other words, Kemp will have to show that he can “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Given the data-driven defensive positioning in today’s game, that’s an even bigger challenge than it was when Wee Willie Keeler coined the phrase.
Let’s circle back to the batting champ. Altuve adroitly uses the whole field, and while he can’t always hit the ball where he wants — “that depends a lot on the pitcher” — he does know how to attack shifts.
“Early in the year, a couple of teams were putting the second baseman on the shortstop side,” Altuve told me during the ALDS. “I was like, ‘They’re giving me a hit there,’ so I would go that way and get a couple of knocks. I forced them to move the second baseman back to his normal position, and then I went back to normal.”
More specifically, he went back to his new normal. Once averse to data, he now uses it to his advantage.
“I’m going to the computer to see how they’re trying to get me out,” explained baseball’s best batsman. “I’m looking at where they’re playing me and how they’re pitching me. I’m also seeing if I’m hitting one pitch better than another one. Early in my career, I was just going up there and swinging the bat. Now I’m paying attention to everything.”
Chili Davis was among the 20 players and coaches who contributed to this summer’s Players’ View piece that asked the question: Will Hitters Adjust to the High-Spin Heater? His expansive answer included, “you have to set your sights at the top of the zone and work down.”
Unless I’m guilty of misinterpretation, Davis isn’t a big believer in looking to lift and launch low offerings. Based on our conversation — only a portion of which was included in the August article — the Cubs’ newly-named hitting coach is more an advocate of attacking up and avoiding down.
“You might be a good low-ball hitter, but against a lot of guys you don’t want to be a low-ball hitter,” opined Davis, who spent the last three seasons in Boston. “When you’re facing them, all that occurs down below is chase. Up is where the mistakes were.
“What makes elevated fastballs effective is the fact that hitters are looking down. When your eyes are set down there, all of sudden you’re coming up to that high fastball — you come under under it and pop it up — whereas if you’re looking up in the zone, you should be able to get to that fastball.
“A lot of guys are looking to create launch angle and those swings are going to be thighs and down. I don’t disagree with launch angle — you do want launch angle — but what you don’t want is to go to an extreme to where you’re trying to get under the ball to create trajectory. Guys who are thinking too much about launch angle… yeah, they’re going to hit some some homers. They’re going to swing and miss that high fastball a lot.”
Earlier this summer, I asked Atlanta Braves scouting director Brian Bridges about his club’s use of TrackMan data when preparing for the amateur draft.
“We definitely use that,” answered Bridges. “We use it as a bond to bridge both paths together. We kind of web it. There are checks and balances to what the eyes see, so we use all of the data that’s given to us to help come up with the best possible decisions we possibly can. We want to check every box on every player.”
Who is most involved in the decision-making process, particularly in the early rounds? Bridges said it’s been himself, general manager John Coppolella, president of baseball operations John Hart, and special assistant Roy Clark. The extent to which that may change with Coppolella’s departure and the ongoing investigation of what appears to be international-scouting malfeasance remains to be seen.
Several players are excelling in the Arizona Fall League. Here are three notables, all of whom play for the Peoria Javelinas:
Ronald Acuna, a 19-year-old outfielder in the Atlanta organization, is slashing .378/.455/.667 with three home runs.
Alex Jackson, a 21-year-old catcher in the Atlanta organization (and a former first-round pick by the Seattle Mariners) is slashing .348/.400/.739 with five home runs.
Josh Naylor, a 20-year-old first baseman in the San Diego Padres organization (and a former first-round pick by the Miami Marlins) is slashing .340/.377/.600 with three home runs.
Anthony Rizzo is this year’s recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award, which is given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
As humanitarian efforts play a big role in the honor, I’m a little surprised that it didn’t go to Carlos Beltran. Not that Rizzo isn’t deserving — he is — but Beltran’s Puerto Rico-recovery efforts have been nothing short of exemplary.
The managers in this year’s World Series are 43-year-old A.J. Hinch and 45-year-old Dave Roberts. Alex Cora, who will soon be taking the helm in Boston, turned 42 a few weeks ago. Mickey Callaway, the Mets’ new manager, is also 42.
The only outlier in the youthful trend is 60-year-old Ron Gardenhire taking over for Ausmus in Detroit. (What’s up with that, Al Avila?)
Meanwhile, 53-year-old Dave Martinez is more than ready to fill one of the current vacancies. As Joe Maddon recently said of his forward-thinking bench coach, “It’s time for him to hold his own baby.”
Kansas City Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre is the son of a former player-turned-manager. Jim Lefebvre was an infielder for the Dodgers from 1965-1972, then skippered the Seattle Mariners (1989-1991), Chicago Cubs (1992-1993) and Milwaukee Brewers (1999).
The younger Lefebvre shared the following with me this summer:
“From as far back as I can remember, my dad has always been intrigued by leadership and the motivation that comes with leadership. He loves books by successful coaches and leaders, and enjoys sharing quotes from them.
“A lot of times when a manager or a coach presents his teams with goals for the season, or get them fired up before a game, it’s a long, energetic, banging-the-drum, type of speech.
“My dad — a Los Angeles kid who’d once been a bat boy for the Dodgers — tells a story that really stands out. It was opening day at Shea Stadium, in 1965, and he’d made the team as a non-roster player. He was incredibly nervous, as you can imagine. Everyone is sitting at their locker because they know Walter Alston is about to come in and address the team.
“Here comes Walter Alston. It was like John Wayne walking onto the set in a movie. He just had that presence about him. He comes in and says, ‘Gentlemen, we’re here to win, and I expect to win. If you do your job, you’ll play. If you don’t, we’ll find somebody else. Good luck.’ Then he walked out of the room.”
On Friday, Yuli Gurriel became the eighth Cuban-born player to hit a World Series home run. The others are Sandy Amoros, Bert Campaneris, Jose Canseco, Tony Oliva, Tony Perez, Yasiel Puig, and Zoilo Versalles.
The best-of-seven Nippon Series got underway on Saturday, with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks routing the Yokohama DeNa BayStars 10-1. The Hawks have won three titles in the last six seasons, most recently in 2015. The BayStars — Yuri Gurriel played for them in 2014 — last came out on top in 1998.
Earlier this week we ran an interview with Keston Hiura that focused on hitting mechanics and his education. Left on the cutting room floor was the current status of his rooting interests. Milwaukee’s 2017 first-round pick grew up in the Los Angeles area, ensconced in Dodger Blue.
When I asked him in August if he’d be cheering on his boyhood team in October, he demurred. Now that he’s a Brewer, Hiura would only go as far as to say “it would be fun and interesting to see the Dodgers in the World Series.”
Allegiances aside, he remains a big fan of the game.
“I view baseball as a fun sport,” Hiura told me.” I think for some guys that tends to get forgotten at times. I still enjoy watching other games and other players. I won’t get to do a lot of now that I’m playing professionally, but baseball will always have a special place in my heart.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
In the opinion of Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe, the Yankees are taking a significant risk by parting ways with Joe Girardi.
If you want to know who excelled in Japan this season, Jim Allen has published his 2017 NPB Awards ballot.
The 2018 Ford Frick finalists have been announced, and Awful Announcing has a look at the eight names (a few of which are controversial).
Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra isn’t pleased with in-game advertising during the World Series, and understandably so.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Per B-Ref, there have been 10,555 hits and 914 home runs in World Series history.
Leo Durocher managed the Dodgers from 1939-1946 (and part of 1948) and the Astros in 1972 and 1973.
Pretzels Getzien went 29-13 for the Detroit Wolverines in 1887. The German-born curveball specialist then won four games as the National League club defeated the American Association’s St. Louis Browns in the World Series
On October 27, 1991, Jack Morris threw a 10-inning, complete-game shutout as the Minnesota Twins beat the Atlanta Braves 1-0 in Game 7 of the World Series.
On October 31, 2005, Theo Epstein resigned as Red Sox general manager and then evaded the media by leaving Fenway Park in a gorilla suit.
Jo-Jo Moore, who played in three World Series and made six all-star teams for the New York Giants between 1933-1940, was nicknamed The Gause Ghost.
Chicago Cubs outfielder Wildfire Schulte — the 1911 NL MVP — had a 13-game World Series hit streak.
Left-hander Jay Dahl was 17 years old when he appeared in his only MLB game with the Houston Colt 45s in 1963. Two years later he died in a car crash.
Pembroke Finlayson pitched in a pair of games for the 1908-1909 Brooklyn Superbas. Following a successful 1912 season with the minor league Memphis Turtles, he died of a heart ailment at age 23.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.