Jose Altuve was always good, but here’s how he got real good
Sure, he’s the shortest regular of this century, but Jose Altuve has managed big things. Last year, he put up the second-best batting average of a second baseman in the free agency era, broke the Astros’ single-season record for hits, and showed the best pop of his career. A few changes to his game helped him be even better.
"Oh he’s always been this good, I remember when I first saw him in the Venezuelan Summer League and was amazed," laughed his current hitting coach, Dave Hudgens. But he agreed that a small change to his batting stance over the last few years may have made a difference.
Here’s Altuve in 2013. Watch his front leg.
Here’s Altuve this year. Watch his front leg again.
See it? Altuve added a little bit of a more dramatic step with his front leg in early 2014. "Not too much, just a little," Altuve said of the change. "I wanted to do an early step, not a big leg kick."
The change has helped him in a couple different ways. "I recognize pitches earlier now that I’m doing that," Altuve said. Hudgens agreed that the step has helped him start his entire swing and thinking process earlier. Altuve has always made a lot of contact — he’s in the top ten in contact rate this year — but his ability to make contact took a leap forward with the step.
The added step has also given Altuve more leverage to get the most out of his… Altuvian frame. "I’m hitting the ball a little harder," the second baseman said. "Not as many singles, more power." His doubles jumped 50% in 2014, and he put up the best slugging numbers of his career.
This year, Altuve has moved into the leadoff spot for good. That’s meant a little change to his approach when it comes to pitchers. "Just trying to be more selective," Altuve said. "I know that I’m an aggressive hitter, when I get my pitch I want to hit it, but at the same time I want to be more selective because I’m leading off this year."
The Astro wanted to give his teammates more looks at the pitcher, as well as help tire him out. The result has been one of the lowest swing (Swing%) and reach (O-swing%) rates of his career. All while maintaining his aggression in the zone (Z-Swing%).
Being aggressive and able to make contact can sometimes lead to contact on the wrong pitches. "Sometimes, early in the count, they throw you offspeed pitch or something, and you wish you could have missed that and not put the ball in play," Altuve admitted, in the same way that we’ve heard Marco Scutaro ("I probably lead the league in bad contact, too") and Joe Panik ("Itâs a very good thing, but it can be a bad thing too,") talk before. The Astro agreed that being more selective will help him avoid putting these bad balls in play.
There are more adjustments on the way. He agreed that pitchers are throwing him more fastballs than ever in the early going this year. But he’s traditionally done fine against fastballs so far, so he thinks it’s a little cat and mouse game — "By the end of the season they’ll change some things and I’ll have to adjust to that."
There are also adjustments that Altuve cannot make. He’s a league leader in called strikes outside of the zone, as Jeff Sullivan noted last year. After a decent year last year — Altuve fell from top ten in the dubious leaderboard to 38th — he’s once again seeing 12.7% of the pitches he’s taken outside the zone called for strikes. "Yeah that’s not me, that’s on the umpires," Altuve laughed. "I’m the wrong guy, we have to ask them."
But what can he do? "No, nothing, I just have to give up on the pitch," Altuve said. So far this year, so good, other than the high and tight pitch, as you can see from his swing percentage heat map:
Jose Altuve knows he’s aggressive. Maybe paradoxically, a more aggressive first step has helped him capitalize better on that aggression while also helping him become more selective. It won’t work for everyone — Hudgens agreed that every hitter was different — but it looks like worked for him.