If There’s A Concern, It Might Be…Jose Altuve?

Yes, the title is a bit misleading. I don’t mind owning that. But it’s not misleading in the way you think. This isn’t click bait – the team is just so good that there isn’t much to be worried about. That’s the truth. It’s been said other places, and it’s very true: it’s really hard to write about a team that’s this good. And make no mistake…this team really is amazing.

The pitching dominance has been well documented, and the fact that guys like Charlie Morton and Justin Verlander and even Gerrit Cole are not this dominant and will absolutely regress as the season wears on doesn’t diminish at all that this is absolutely one of the best pitching staffs of the Wild Card era…at least.

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But the part that has everyone so concerned, it seems, is the team offense…which (surprise!) is very, very good. While it’s true that some more consistency would be nice, and while certain members of the offense haven’t been contributing nearly enough to justify their continued presence, there is still no way to overstate the fact that the Astros are a top 10 offense in baseball right now, today, and in some ways are even better than that. Checking based on team measurements for wRC+, wOBA, BB%, Off. fWAR, and even K% – these metrics support the idea.

 

The team is 13th in WPA and 25th in “Clutch”, per FanGraphs, and that explains some of the feeling like they “can’t hit with runners in scoring position” feeling that many fans are so concerned about. There is a lot being made about the home versus road splits, and to that I would respond that it’s mostly random (but interesting) noise that will even out over the next 120 games.

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At some point, the bats will erupt at home and struggle on the road and the numbers will begin to even out, all against the backdrop of the fact (which many don’t remember or seem to ignore) that, despite its reputation and dimensions down the line, Minute Maid Park overall has largely been a pitcher-friendly park for years and years now.

There are tons and tons of things to be written about the fact that this team is fine – and I will write them, given some time. But today, I want to focus on one slightly (this word is key) concerning long-term issue that this Astros fan would like to see addressed, personally…perhaps Jose Altuve’s most alarming weakness.

The Evolution

We all know that Jose Altuve began his career as a mediocre singles hitter (or, if you didn’t know, you do now) and grew into one of the most dominant offensive forces in the sport over the last two seasons. His hit totals and batting average (if you’re into that stat…those who know me know I am not, at all) have been good for even longer than two years. But the big thing that drove Jose Altuve to new heights in 2016 and 2017 and really put him on the map as one of the most elite offensive players in baseball?

His improved plate discipline.

Jose Altuve studied hard and listened to the wisdom of his coaches and the front office when they discussed ways to multiply his offensive value. He is one of the hardest working, most prepared hitters in baseball – this is well known about him.

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Note that his improved discipline doesn’t just translate into taking more walks. Altuve has indeed significantly increased his walk rate up to around 8.5% since opening day in 2016, up from the 5.0% walk rate in his 2,937 plate appearances before that. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s more of a happy side effect of the (well-documented) improvements Jose Altuve made in avoiding chasing bad pitches and instead hunting hittable pitches to drive in the air. In 2016 he added over two miles per hour to his average exit velocity in the air (fly balls and line drives) and it was even more pronounced and refined in 2017, which led to one of the greatest offensive seasons in Astros history and the second MVP award in franchise history.

So, what’s the problem? He’s coming off the best year of his career, just signed a big extension, and all is right with the world, yeah? Why make a fuss?

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The Problem

The fly in the ointment here might be most noticeable when one examines the aging curve of most hitters and notices that decline (whenever it does happen for a given hitter) often correlates with decreased contact percentages, even if the research struggles to put an age window on it with good accuracy. Some sources say as young as age 25 to 29 should be considered a player’s peak years, while others range more in the age 27-28 range, while still others say as old as 30 to 32. One thing many agree on, though: a sure-fire harbinger of offensive decline can frequently be traced to contact rates.

For more reading on offensive player aging models, there are fascinating sources all over the internet for your perusal – like this piece by J.C. Bradbury (author of “The Baseball Economist” and “Hot Stove Economics”) from 2010 on Baseball Prospectus, or this seminal piece on FanGraphs by Neil Weinberg from 2015. Jeff Zimmerman wrote a piece for SB Nation’s own Beyond The Box Score back in 2011 that also has incredible info, and Mitchel Lichtman put out this piece in 2016 that takes a very strong look at the topic as well. And of course, anything Tom Tango has written on the topic is crucial reading for baseball fans, as is true with most things Tom writes about.

Point is, there is a Brobdingnagian effluence of information available on this topic – none of it conclusive, and all of it supportive of at least some infinitesimal modicum of concern with regard to Jose Altuve specifically.

Take a look at this screen shot, taken from FanGraphs.com (my personal go-to for 95% of all of my statistical needs, if it isn’t on your bookmarks list, I highly recommend adding it) of Jose Altuve’s plate discipline numbers over the entirety of his career, by season:

Jose Altuve Plate Discipline through 5-13-18

There are a lot of stats there that aren’t exactly ubiquitous, so I hope the more analytically inclined readers will have some patience as I explain the gist of some of these stats to newer readers here, or to those who aren’t yet as versed. Because if you, as a reader, are used to (forgive me, but) bad statistics like batting average and runs batted in to evaluate hitters, there’s a good chance you look at mentions of advanced offensive metrics like this:

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There’s no route forward that is readily apparent to me without a little pedantic condescension from me, so I’m really sorry. I don’t want to be that way, I just want to help some as an intermediate-ish fan of advanced metrics who wants to share an interesting insight about one of the most popular sports figures in Houston history.

From my perspective, there’s no reason to be intimidated by numbers – they can enhance our appreciation of the game without taking anything away from the aspects we all grew up loving. There’s also no good reason to dismiss numbers – especially numbers that are pretty well established and peer-reviewed like so many of the advanced metrics are. For those who want a full breakdown (and I highly recommend this!) please visit the FanGraphs glossary entry for these stats. For those who just want the Reader’s Digest version so they can continue, here’s the summary taken from that same article:

Plate-Discipline-Flash-Card-12-29-15-e1451409497885

The concern for Altuve hinges on understanding that decreasing contact percentages and increasing strikeout percentages are usually (not always!) the harbinger for decline in aging players. Jose Altuve is still only 28 years old, so you won’t hear a definitive argument here that he’s really immersed in age-based decline. Instead, it seems more like he’s been approaching the pinnacle of his personal offensive profile, and might have surpassed it a bit. Should have taken that left at Albuquerque, as it were.

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What I’m trying to say is that there’s probably a sweet spot in there, and that perhaps in his anxiousness to justify the massive contract he received this offseason, he might be pressing a bit and chasing more and more pitches out of the zone, or more pitches that aren’t ideal for damage. That’s possibly true. It is demonstrably true, however, that Jose Altuve has seen declines over multiple consecutive seasons in the following ways:

  • Swings at pitches inside the zone (has declined in 3 straight years)
  • Overall swing percentage (3 straight years)
  • Contact percentage on pitches out of the zone (4 straight years)
  • Contact percentage on pitches in the zone (3 out of 4 years, 2017 stayed mostly static with 2016)
  • Overall contact percentage (4 straight years)
  • The percentage of pitches in the zone that he’s seen from opposing pitchers (4 straight years)
  • His overall swinging strike percentage (4 straight years)

The Solution…?

The truth is, there may not be a true solution. It may be that, while it takes another couple seasons for Altuve to succumb to the tentacles of aging writ large, we may have already seen the best that Jose Altuve will ever be.

This is probably a good time to remind you, dear reader, that I did say this is a minor concern. Jose Altuve is still really, really good at baseball.

Even if his power dwindles to almost nothing and his plate discipline falters and he reverts back to being mostly a singles hitter, he’s a really good singles hitter.

However, as pitchers are discovering more and more that they can get him out by pitching him out of the zone because he’s swinging more at the non-damage pitches and making contact even more infrequently (never mind hard contact, just contact in general) it would not be surprising to me at all to see the next stage of Jose Altuve’s evolution be to “incredibly valuable veteran leader who sets a great example…and bats seventh or ninth.”

I hope the Bug Bunny .gifs have helped temper some of the outrage at this idea. If not, I’m prepared for the tar and feathers. Bring it on!

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