The Most Bizarre Jose Altuve Stat

Jose Altuve has 18 steals in 19 attempts this season. No, that’s not the bizarre stat. That’s just an impressive stat. Jose Altuve is an excellent base-stealer! Among the 71 players with at least five steal attempts this year, Altuve’s success rate ranks third. Since he began receiving regular playing time in 2012, no one’s stolen more bases. He’s fast, he steals plenty of bases, and he steals them well. Which is what makes the bizarre stat so bizarre, and here it comes: despite being fast, stealing plenty of bases, and stealing those bases well, Jose Altuve has been a terribly costly base-runner.

It’s easy to assume that good base-stealers are also good base-runners. The best base-stealers, typically, are the fastest guys on the field, and the best base-runners, typically, are those same fastest guys on the field. But if you think about it, aside from simply being fast (which isn’t necessarily a requirement for proficiency in either skill), base-stealing and base-running really aren’t as similar as they might appear. Base-stealing is more about pattern recognition, acceleration, and timing. Base-running has more to do with risk/reward decision-making, fluidity, and instincts. A base-stealer runs in a straight line with a defined endpoint. A base-runner runs in angles. Speed and athleticism is all that really ties these skills together.

Altuve has the speed and athleticism. That’s for sure. But when it comes to his base-running company, he’s the only one:

The 10 Most Detrimental Base-Runners, 2015-16
Name Spd UBR
Victor Martinez 0.8 -8.1
Billy Butler 1.5 -7.9
Miguel Cabrera 1.9 -7.0
Nelson Cruz 2.1 -6.6
Jose Altuve 6.0 -6.6
David Ortiz 1.3 -6.4
Prince Fielder 1.0 -6.4
Kendrys Morales 1.7 -5.9
Albert Pujols 2.5 -5.8
Adam Lind 1.4 -5.3
Spd: Speed score, a rough measure of player speed devised by Bill James
UBR: Ultimate Base Running, FanGraphs’ isolated base-running statistic (steals excluded)

Look at that list of names. Look at it! It’s literally a list of nine old dudes whom way too many baseball fans believe they could beat in a footrace, and then Jose Altuve, one of the best base-stealers in the world.

Another way to look at this:

UBR_vs_Spd

Negative seven runs over the last two years! Seven! Altuve’s (non base-stealing) base-running since 2015 has cost the Astros more than half a win. In fact, the negative value Altuve’s accrued from his base-running woes has actually outweighed the value of all those steals — his total BsR since the start of last year is -4.0.

I just had to reach out to Mitchel Lichtman, UBR proprietor, to ensure I wasn’t seeing things. Lichtman provided me a spreadsheet with the full outputs of the UBR calculations the last two years and assured me that, yes, this is indeed accurate. Jose Altuve really has been one of the five most detrimental base-runners in baseball since the start of last year, even moreso than David Ortiz.

So what gives?

We can start with the publicly available data. Baseball-Reference has some individual base-running numbers in their batting-splits leaders. And those numbers show us that Altuve’s taken the extra base in just over 40% of his extra-base opportunities since the beginning of 2015. That’s not terrible — right around league-average — but it’s sub-par for someone with Altuve’s speed. Someone like Elvis Andrus, who’s consistently among the best base-runners in the game, has taken the extra base in close to 70% of his opportunities.

The bigger issue is seen both in the publicly available numbers and in our UBR spreadsheet. The bigger issue is the outs made on the basepaths. Altuve’s made 23 outs on the bases since the start of last year, five more than anyone else. He’s made nearly as many outs on the bases (23) as he’s taken extra bases (28). Compare that to Josh Donaldson, a plus base-runner who’s been on base roughly as many times as Altuve the last couple years. Donaldson’s made just four outs on the bases while taking 43 extra bags. That’s 15 extra bases and 19 fewer outs for Donaldson, a massive gap which helps give some context to how his base-running (+3.9 UBR) could be worth a full win more than Altuve’s (-6.6).

Our UBR spreadsheet demonstrates just how costly the outs into which Altuve’s ran have been:

Negative value of outs on the bases, 2015-16

  1. Jose Altuve, -3.7
  2. Erick Aybar, -2.2
  3. Jonathan Villar, -1.6
  4. Shawn O’Malley, -1.6
  5. Bryce Harper, -1.6

You’ve got to add the second- and third-most costly figures in all of baseball just to reach Altuve’s. The difference between Altuve and second place is the same as the difference between second place and 39th place.

So how has this manifested itself? Is there a pattern to Altuve’s TOOTBLANs? Yeah, actually, there sort of is.

Of course, there’s still been the “what-can-you-do, he made a really good throw”:

And the “third base coach did me dirty”:

And the “literal statistical noise, in video form”:

But here’s where I think the pattern is. Remember that kid on your little league team who, every time he got a hit, only stopped running when he either (a) was tagged out or (b) scored? Altuve is kind of like the grown-up version of that kid. Of his 23 outs on the bases since last year, six came on balls in play that he hit.

He ran into one when Erick Aybar let this ground ball skip past him:

He ran into another two innings later when he incorrectly assumed Mike Trout wouldn’t hit the cut-off man (to be fair, this did at least buy enough time for another run to score):

Ian Desmond caught him trying to stretch a relatively routine single into a double:

Another instance of greed (and indecision) after a ball skips past a shortstop:

I don’t know what the hell this is:

It’s almost like when Altuve hits a ball, he’s just looking for something, anything to afford him an opportunity to squeeze an extra base out of it (which, for a player with his speed, isn’t the worst idea), and the moment something in the play goes awry, he just can’t help himself from turning on the aggression. Problem is, that instinctual risk/reward decision-making we talked about earlier has been broken.

Solely in terms of making outs on the bases, Erick Aybar has been the second-most costly base-runner over the last two years. But if you navigate to Aybar’s player page, you’ll see that his UBR, unlike Altuve’s, has actually been positive. How so? Well, because he’s made up for it with the value of taking extra bases on hits (+2.5 runs to Altuve’s -2.9) and tagging up on fly balls (+1.2 runs to Altuve’s -1.0). In other words, Aybar’s aggression has ran him into his fair share of outs, but his aggression has also paid off, and the value of those successes has outweighed the negatives. Altuve’s aggression has led to more outs than anyone, and it hasn’t resulted in enough successes.

It’s sort of hard to fathom. There’s probably some happenstance working against Altuve here; he was never this bad before 2015, though his base-running has never really been an asset. But maybe Altuve is just the bizarro-Ian Kinsler — a guy who’s remained one of the best base-runners in the game despite losing most of his base-stealing acumen years ago. For someone with Altuve’s speed, you want aggression. You want that single stretched into a double. For someone with Altuve’s history, though, maybe you just want him to pump the brakes.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Raidas77
5 years ago

Thank you for putting to words what many Stros fans have known for a while.

What makes him great a collecting hits in bunches also makes him horrible at things like running up pitch counts, being a good baserunner, etc.

He’s a caveman. See the ball hit the ball. Usually the first pitch. And often he decides he’s going to swing before the pitch is thrown.

Need a SB? He’s going on the first pitch and half the time he is guessing and going on first movement.

Everything he does is a reflex. A blessing and a curse.

Rational Fan
5 years ago
Reply to  Raidas77

I’m having a hard time following along.

He’s horrible at running up pitch counts? He averages 3.66 P/PA, which is right in line with Cabrera/Machado/Cano/Mookie. He’s not elite in the category, but he’s hardly horrible at it in the general sense.

He’s a caveman? He has more BB’s than K’s this year (31/27), which is remarkable in the modern game with K’s rising. Certainly not the attribute of a guy who decides he’s going to swing before a pitch is thrown regardless of type or location. Over the past three seasons he has never struck out more than 67 times. While he hasn’t walked at the rate he has this year, he’s certainly shown an ability to take a walk this year.

Half the time he’s guessing and going on first movement? Over the past three seasons he has stolen 83% of bases he has attempted. Not elite, but certainly very good; when you break it down by halves, he is even more remarkable in the first half – it seems Altuve’s legs break down a bit in the second half of the season. This year he has stolen 18 bases and been caught once – hardly the numbers of a guy who is just guessing. Also, I fail to understand why going on first pitch is a detriment? In fact, going on first pitch is a very good thing. It is much better for the batter if he goes on first pitch, and it maximizes the potential for runs without putting the batter in a significant hole at the plate.

While Altuve may not be the best base runner once he is on the bases – I tend to believe the past two years is more statistical noise than actual truth and that he is around average as a base runner – he effects the game with his base running more than most players in the game. I know stolen bases are not as well received in the metric community, and the concept of disrupting a pitcher can’t be calculated so it isn’t something discussed here, but Altuve certainly does that.

You seem down on Altuve, but all your points, with the exception of him not being a great base runnner, just don’t seem true. He clearly doesn’t decide he’s going to swing no matter what – if he did, he’d strike out more. He clearly doesn’t swing at the first pitch every time, if he did he wouldn’t be averaging 3.66 P/PA along the lines with some of the games other elite players. He clearly does not just guess when stealing bases, if he did his success rate wouldn’t be as high as it is.

Overall, it feels like you are presenting a case that he has a lot of flaws when frankly he doesn’t have very many at all.

Raidas77
5 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

I love Altuve, so my comments may have been misconstrued. I think he has HOF-level contact skills and leverages that up even more by being aggressive and jumping on the first good pitch he sees. He going to shatter all of Biggio’s Astros records.

I also think he’s an awful baserunner

John Elway
5 years ago
Reply to  Raidas77

Like you said, a blessing and a curse. You learn to live with the curse because of everything else a guys does. Like Russell Westbrook’s turnovers being part of his hyperspeed game, for instance.

Just neighing.

Rational Fan
5 years ago
Reply to  Raidas77

Fair enough. I won’t call a guy with his base stealing abilities an awful baserunner in general, but I could understand arguing his instincts outside of base stealing may be too aggressive. I can not call a guy who has the impact he does on the bases an awful baserunner though.

Altering a pitchers rhythm, time to the plate, causing a slide step, and giving a pitcher another objective may not be something we can put a number on today but I have seen it effect a baseball game far too many times in my life to think it does not matter and is not worth something. Altuve is a disruptive force on first base and second base regardless of whether he steals the base or not. The threat he presents causes a pitcher to think about more than throwing the ball where he wants to. What he does once the ball is put in play can be debated, base running wise, but I don’t think it’s possible to be awful with how much he effects the game on the bases. I know this might not be a popular opinion here, but I know I loved hitting with a really good base stealer on the bases. Saw more fastballs, and never felt like the pitcher had my full attention.