On the surface, it’s easy to see what makes Jose Altuve a unique player. There’s his height, which has been reported anywhere from 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-7 — no matter which end of the scale he falls on, he’s still shorter than the average major league baseball player. There’s his energy, which seems to have spread throughout the entire Houston Astros’ roster. Most importantly, there’s his batting — the ability to control the bat, the ability to be aggressive but discerning at the plate, the ability that has made him one of the best hitters in either league.
Altuve wasn’t always Altuve, however. As a prospect, he never ranked particularly highly among the Houston farm’s stars, despite consistently putting up high batting averages and showing occasional power beyond his size. For all the talk of looking for unseen advantages, baseball can still cling to certain ideas of the way “average” baseball players look. Short is on the list of attributes a player has to be really good to overcome, and for the first few years of his career, Altuve didn’t have the loudness to his tools.
To its credit, though, the Houston front office paid attention. Despite the commonly discussed gaffe of thinking he was too young to sign (which, after the mistakes by the Atlanta Braves’ front office, might be a point in favor of the old Houston administration), once the Astros had him in the system, they were willing to push him: At every minor league stop, Altuve was at least a full year younger than the league average. He impressed their scouts enough that in 2011, when they had the opportunity to trade former starting second baseman Jeff Keppinger, they promoted Altuve to the major leagues with the intent to start him, where he hit .276/.297/.357 over 57 games.
Obviously, Altuve wasn’t content to just sit on that mark. He steadily made improvements over his next seven seasons in the majors, coming out of the gate so hot in 2012 that he made his first All-Star team as a 22-year-old. Altuve has hit over .300 for the last four seasons. He’s hit double-digit home runs in the last three, including 24 in both 2016 and 2017. He’s been everything Houston could have possibly asked for coming out of its rebuilding years… and more.
It’s not just Altuve’s hitting ability that makes him special, though, as said above. It’s the energy he brings. In his age-27 season, he’s an undeniable leader for the Astros, as well as a burgeoning star. His energy even made him the most charming part of what could have been a cringe-worthy ad for Five-Hour Energy, when he (in a carefully de-labelled jersey) fills every job possible at a baseball stadium, including a seat vendor. He’s beloved by the fans for his all-in attitude and measurable hustle, an attribute noted in 2012, in this still-excellent Sam Miller piece.
Looking back over his career, the common thread of his success is easier to pick out with the benefit of hindsight. There’s never been a sense of plateauing with Altuve, but always a determination and drive to improve and move forward — that surely has rubbed off on young infield mates Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.
It’s hard to sum up all the bits and pieces that make Jose Altuve such a great ballplayer, but beyond the MVP, beyond the batting titles and the defense, his overall impact on the team might say the most.