JOSE ALTUVE DEEP DIVE

Here's the version of Jose Altuve the Astros should expect to see in 2021

Altuve was terrific in the postseason. Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

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.

Year

Chase %

Chase Contact %

Slugging %

2015

34.1%

79.7%

.459

2016

30.5%

75.1%

.531

2017

31.8%

72.3%

.547

2018

30%

70.3%

.451

2019

30%

68.6%

.550

2020

35.2%

67.3%

.344

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.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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