JOSE ALTUVE DEEP DIVE
Here's the version of Jose Altuve the Astros should expect to see in 2021
Jose Altuve had a similar season to his middle infield counterpart Carlos Correa. Both had subpar regular seasons at the plate before lighting it up in the postseason. Altuve is under contract through 2024, so there aren't any extension questions like there are for Correa, but Altuve's performance is vital to the Astros future success. Which version of Altuve is real? The regular season one or the postseason one?
Hard Hit % - 33.3%
Barrel % - 4.6%
K% - 18.6%
BB% - 8.1%
Chase % - 35.2%
(Above numbers from 2020)
There are a few statistical changes for Altuve in 2020 from past seasons. First, his Barrel % dropped from 8.1% to 4.6%. That would be his lowest Barrel % since 2015 (3.1%), which was the last season before Altuve began a swing overhaul to start working more uphill and drive the ball more. Altuve had established himself as a star by then, but he was hardly a home run threat, and he relied more on his speed.
Next, his Chase % increased to 35.2%. That was a 5.2% increase from 2019 and 2018, when he had exactly 30% marks both times. Again, it was the highest his Chase % has been since 2015, when it was 34.1%. However, Altuve made contact on those swings 79.7% of the time. In 2020, he made contact on chase swings just 67.3% of the time. Altuve has a reputation as a good bad ball hitter, but he's gotten worse and worse at that the older he's gotten. Is it because of age? No. It's because of swing change.
Look at the evolution of Altuve's swing from '14 to '17. In '14 and '15, Altuve clearly swung downhill. He's not thinking about driving the ball whatsoever; he's just trying to put the bat on the ball and find a hole. While '16 & '17 are also ground balls, the swings are completely different. In the latter two swings, he's working more uphill, his bat enters the zone at a more vertical angle, and he's trying to drive the baseball.
The swing evolution is a good thing. It's why Altuve is a better overall hitter now than he was then. It just means that he isn't able to do as much with those pitches off the plate. He has to wait for a ball he can drive.
Chase Contact %
The outliers here are 2018 and 2020. Remember, Altuve was playing on a bad knee for a good portion of 2018, and that played the biggest factor in the dip in power production. In 2020, it's the chase rate and all the other factors of a COVID season.
So how did Altuve turn around his performance in the postseason? He started chasing less. Postseason splits aren't provided for those statistics, so I went through each postseason game and tallied his discipline. Here are the results:
- Saw 173 pitches outside the strike zone
- Chased 31 times
- Chase % - 17.9%
He cut his Chase % in half. Essentially, Altuve went from chasing about as often as Kansas City Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi to chasing about as often as teammate Alex Bregman. Altuve's Hard Hit % in the 2020 postseason was 41%, a 7% improvement on his regular season mark. It makes sense, as pitchers are forced to come to hitters and give them pitches they can do more damage with if they chase less often. It resulted in a postseason where he slashed .375/.500/.729 with five homers and walked more than he struck out (11 BB vs. 8 K).
Altuve also had some indicators of bad luck that made his regular season numbers look worse than they really should have been. He had a .250 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), which is a .053 point drop from last season, and it's .084 below his career mark. His .230 xBA (Expected Batting Average) isn't great, but it's still a touch better than the .219 he finished with. Similarly, his .352 xSLG isn't great, but it's a little better than the .344 SLG he actually recorded. Altuve, for his entire career, has outperformed his expected statistics. Altuve has outperformed his xBA in every season since Statcast was adopted (2015). He's outperformed his xSLG in all but one season. That doesn't mean Altuve has been perpetually lucky and that luck finally turned, it means that a "normal" Altuve will outperform those metrics, and it was unlucky this year that he didn't.
Some people may be concerned that Altuve is losing some athleticism now that he's on the wrong side of 30. There aren't any signs of him losing a step. His 28.4 ft/s average sprint speed is just 0.2 ft/s worse than last year. It's better than 2017 and 2018, and it's tied with 2015 and 2016. He's the same runner he's always been. Altuve was in the 89th percentile in MLB in sprint speed. Altuve was the second fastest player on the Astros, just 0.2 ft/s behind Myles Straw.
Altuve isn't over the hill yet. He proved in the postseason that he's still an elite hitter when he's on his game. As long as he fixes the issues he had with expanding the zone in 2020, he should be back to the Altuve of old for the entirety of 2021.