Jose Altuve‘s career is notable because he is a 5-foot-5 man from Venezuela making a living as a professional athlete in America. Jose Altuve’s season is notable because of hits. Lots and lots of hits.
Total number of hits isn’t typically something at which we look to evaluate a player’s performance or ability, because not all hits are created equal. 150 hits is not always better than 130 hits. We all know this. But when a player begins to approach or exceed 200 hits – regardless of what those hits are – they’re having a good season. They’re having a season worth celebrating.
Altuve, as of this writing, is at 220 hits. That’s the most ever by a player from Venezuela. That’s the most ever by a player for the Astros. That’s the most by a player in the MLB since Ichiro in 2009. Ichiro racked up 225 that year. Altuve, with six games remaining, is projected to finish with 228. If he does indeed surpass that total of 225, you’ll have to go back to 2007 when Ichiro had 238 hits to find a player with more than Altuve. No matter what happens, the point remains: Jose Altuve has had a remarkable season.
Granted, Altuve is running a .365 batting average on balls in play. We tend to look at BABIP as a measure of how lucky or unlucky a player might have been. Only Starling Marte and Christian Yelich have a higher BABIP than Altuve, so it would be easy to point to Altuve’s BABIP and deem him lucky and due for regression. Which, in part, is true. Altuve’s career BABIP prior to this year was .317 and, really, anyone who has a single-season BABIP over .350 or so experienced some sort of good fortune. But there are things a player can do to help sustain a high BABIP. There are things Altuve has done to help sustain a high BABIP. Let’s see how Jose Altuve got to 200 hits.
It all starts with plate discipline. It always does. The less one strikes out, the more opportunities one has to get hits. Altuve has always had good discipline, striking out in just 12% of his plate appearances prior to this season. But this year, Altuve went from “rarely striking out” to “never striking out,” dropping his strikeout rate to 7.7%, the second-best figure in baseball to Victor Martinez. If the rest of Altuve’s numbers were the same, but his strikeout rate was still 12%, his average would drop from the .345 at which is currently stands to .325.
We can’t say what, exactly, caused this. Back in early July, Mike Petriello noted that Altuve has overhauled his swing. Perhaps that’s allowed him to make more contact with balls out of the zone. Last year, Altuve made contact on 76% of his swings on pitches outside of the strike zone. This year, that’s up to 83%. Only Martinez and Nick Markakis have that beat.
One of Altuve’s 220 hits came on this pitch:
That was a fastball. But if you want to get a little more specific with what’s changed with Altuve at the plate, you’ll want to look at breaking balls. Prior to this year, Altuve hit just .249 with a miniscule .037 isolated slugging percentage against breaking balls. Now, he’s hitting breaking balls as well as any other pitch type, to the tune of a .377 average and .117 ISO. Again, it’s impossible to know whether this can be traced back to his re-tooled swing or if it’s something else entirely. But it’s there, and it’s real. Altuve used to have a weakness against curveballs and sliders. Now, he’s turned that weakness into a strength, at least for the time being.
In June, Jeff Sullivan wrote about Carlos Gomez and his first pitch swing tendencies. Gomez swings at the first pitch often, and he does a lot of damage. This year, Gomez has put the first pitch in play 121 times. That’s a ton! That’s more than almost anybody in baseball. Almost. Altuve is the only one to top Gomez, and it’s not even close.
Gomez has put 121 first pitches into play. Altuve? 147. Those first pitch balls in play have resulted in 50 hits for Gomez. For Altuve, that number is 62. Granted, Gomez has done more damage on his 50 hits than Altuve on his 62, because Gomez does more damage than Altuve in general. But we’re just focusing on hits right now, and nobody has earned more hits against first pitches than Jose Altuve.
I like to think of infield singles as the stolen base of hits. Not everyone can get them! It requires speed. The defense has a chance to get you out, but you beat them. It’s literally like you stole something. Jose Altuve has 54 steals, which is a ton of steals. He also has a ton of infield hits.
Dee Gordon leads the MLB with 30 infield hits right now. Right after him is Jose Altuve, with 29. Part of this stems from the first two points we’ve already covered. Altuve has given himself lots of opportunities for infield hits by never striking out and being very aggressive. The rest can be attributed to his legs.
Here’s Altuve beating out a routine ground ball to shortstop against the Indians just the other day:
Here he is legging out a chopper to second:
You probably didn’t need this GIFs, because you know what an infield hit looks like. But it helps break up the text and it’s nice to be able to visualize these things. Picture someone else running to first on these plays. It doesn’t even have to be someone slow, like Miguel Cabrera. Take someone like Robinson Cano and plug him into these GIFs. These are two hits Jose Altuve manufactured with his legs that Robinson Cano likely wouldn’t have had.
Going up the middle
You might have already known about the first three things – or at least you would have been able to guess them. I’m willing to bet this is one area you didn’t consider. I think it’s something that’s very underrated in a hitter’s batted ball profile and something that deserves more attention.
One thing we look at when determining whether or not a high or low BABIP is sustainable is line drive rate. Line drives go for hits more than any other batted ball type, so a player who hits line drives at an above-league average rate will get hits at an above-league average rate. Not only does Altuve have an above-league average line drive rate but, you guessed it, nobody has more hits to the center of the field than Altuve. 77 of his 220 hits have been up the middle.
Like line drives, balls up the middle go for hits more than any other batted ball direction, so a player who hits balls up the middle at an above-league average rate should see the same results. You can’t really defend against a ball up the middle. 77 of Altuve’s hits have been essentially undefendable.
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Jose Altuve has had a remarkable season, because he’s racked up more hits than every single player in the major leagues. The way he’s done it is unique, but it makes sense. It would be easy to point to his .365 BABIP and scream “regression!” but there’s more to it than that. You look at Altuve’s improved discipline, you look at his aggressiveness and subsequent success on first pitches, you look at his speed and resulting infield hits, and you look at his ability to shoot the ball up the middle and you see a guy who might win more batting titles than just the one he’s already got locked up this year.