There’s just something about playing for a Texas team that makes it easy for the rest of the country to forget what kind of an excellent season a particular player is having. Or so it seems.
Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve isn’t an unknown name, but he rarely leads Sportscenter or is in the headlines of daily sports sections. Instead, he’s quietly worked his way out to an insane lead in the American League (and all-league) batting average race, hitting .365 over 110 games. The next highest average in-league is Eduardo Nunez at .324, who only has 11 games with his American League team. And then there’s Carlos Correa, Altuve’s teammate, at .320.
Since the advent of “Moneyball,” there’s a certain unwillingness by some to credit winning the batting title, and the concept of the “empty batting average” has certainly been written about many times. In truth, when evaluating hitters, batting average should probably fall further down on the list of traits and results to consider. But there does come a point where a player is so good that even something as simple as batting average can be said to reflect it.
Altuve is that player. Scouts usually assign the “80-grade” hit tool to any player who regularly hits .300 or higher over a season — players such as Adrian Beltre and Joey Votto — and Altuve is in his fourth season of hitting above that level.
He doesn’t just hit singles, either. For a player who is listed at 5-foot-6, Altuve has turned himself into an above-average power producer for his position. He has taken his 40-plus doubles at the beginning of his career and turned them into home runs, without giving up much of his speed on the basepaths or grace at his position. On a team that’s reduced its strikeouts, Altuve never had much to reduce.
He is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect offensive second baseman. His command of both his swing and of the strike zone is unparalleled, and he is actually able to leverage his unusual size (for baseball) into a ferocious ability to hit — something not all short infielders are able to do (see: Odor, Rougned).
So why don’t we talk about him as much as it seems like we should, from simply examining his Baseball Reference page? Altuve’s had the unique misfortune to make his break in baseball at the same time as another true-talent 80-grade hitter, and one with a few other 80-grade tools as well: Mike Trout. This isn’t to say that Trout hasn’t deserved every accolade handed to him (and a few that weren’t.) Trout is a true baseball freak, someone with the kind of incredible talent that will be talked about for generations to come.
He is Babe Ruth, without the braggadocio. Altuve has probably broken the scouting scale, as at this point he looks like a true-talent .340 hitter, but he’s more of a comical side note; so short, so fun to watch, so stuck on a team that no one thought about for years.
To reference that amusing quote from a few years ago, in a different light, baseball has “too many good players,” right now. Vegas seems to understand Altuve’s worth, as by at least one bookmaker he leads the American League MVP odds. But if Trout or Aaron Judge has a hot end of the season, the outcome might not be so clear. Altuve is great, but he doesn’t play center field or hit majestic bombs (well, hit majestic bombs with the same regularity as Judge does.) Altuve absolutely deserves the American League MVP trophy, but sometimes the voting doesn’t go as predicted.
No matter what happens when the ballots are all cast and the arguments have settled down, Altuve will go down in history as one of the greatest hitters of our time — if not of all time. He’s just now in his prime, too, meaning that we could be in for performances exceeding this season’s down the line. That’s something that all baseball fans, not just those in Houston, should be excited about.
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