The Perpetually Improving Jose Altuve

Traditional offenses rely on hulking sluggers to produce runs, but there are some middle infielders capable of delivering a punch. More and more athletic players are making an impact on the game and one need look no further than Houston to see how true this is. Ian York uses his unique charts to demonstrate how the Astros second baseman Jose Altuve has taken his offensive game to a new level in 2016, vaulting himself into MVP consideration.

The Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve was a decent but unspectacular hitter from his rookie year in 2011 through 2013. In 2014 and 2015, he turned a corner and became a very good hitter, leading baseball in hits and posting an OPS of .830 and .812, respectively. In 2016 he has taken yet another step forward and become one of the best hitters in baseball, leading the major leagues in batting average and on-base percentage, second only to David Ortiz in OPS:

(The horizontal lines indicate Altuve’s career averages.)

Altuve has been a model of consistency throughout the 2016 season, with outstanding numbers against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers (OPS of .981 and 1.088 respectively), and only experiencing two brief slumps. This chart shows his offense as 10-game rolling averages, with his season averages shown as solid lines. Aside from a couple weeks in late May and again in early July, he’s been well above average all year:

What does PITCHf/x show us about his 2016 improvement? For starters, he has no major weaknesses. He has been hitting all pitch types well:

Hits/pitch Total bases/pitch
Average Altuve 2016 Average Altuve 2016
Fastballs 0.06 0.10 0.10 0.16
Breaking 0.05 0.07 0.08 0.12
Offspeed 0.06 0.08 0.10 0.12

Breaking the strike zone into sub-regions, we can compare his effectiveness in each region since his rookie year:

Altuve has always hit breaking pitches a little better than average and has continued to do so this season. In his first few years, he feasted on offspeed pitches, hitting them much better than average; however, this has dropped off a bit in 2016. While he still hits offspeed pitches better than the average hitter, the difference is not as great as for fastballs or breaking pitches.

In his first step forward in 2014, he sharply improved his average and power against fastballs, and continued to improve in 2015 and 2016, partly by increasing his power, but also by extending his preferred zone from middle-in to cover the outer third of the plate as well. In the above graphics, the contour plots in the background show the locations of the pitches he has seen this year; unsurprisingly, pitchers try to hit the outer third of the plate, his weakest region, with each pitch type, while avoiding his hot zones as much as possible.  

This also shows up to some extent in the pattern of pitch types Altuve has seen this year. This time using a 20-game rolling average (to help account for the relatively small number of left-handed pitchers he has seen), we can see some clear patterns. One is that left-handed pitchers have shifted to throw more offspeed pitches to Altuve as the season has worn on. Here are Altuve’s results compared to the baseball-wide average pitch frequency to right-handed batters:

Fastball location also shows how left-handed pitchers are struggling to deal with the new, and more terrifying, Altuve this year. While right-handed pitchers have consistently targeted the outer half of the plate, left-handed pitchers have seemingly tried other regions — middle third, lower-middle, even briefly flirting with the inner third of the strike zone — before collectively throwing up their hands and returning to the outer third of the plate. Again, using 20-game rolling averages, this time charting fastball location:

The Jose Altuve of 2011 to 2013, who feasted on off-speed pitches, but was about league-average against fastballs, could at least be controlled with a diet of outer-third fastballs. The current version of Altuve, who is capable of destroying fastballs anywhere in the strike zone and remains an above-average hitter against offspeed and breaking pitches, is far more difficult, and pitchers haven’t come close to figuring him out yet.


Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

Featured image courtesy of Troy Taormina.

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