If you told someone who knew all about baseball but nothing about current players that there was a 5'6" superstar, they'd probably get pretty close to imagining 2014 to 2015 Jose Altuve without any more information. Altuve demonstrated outstanding contact skills (90.4 percent contact rate), speed (6.1 speed score), a propensity to swing often (51.6 percent swing rate and 4.9 percent walk rate), and not a ton of power (.129 ISO). He did have enough line drives to be quite productive overall (127 wRC+), and as a middle infielder, of course. Jose Altuve has basically been the platonic ideal of tiny baseball player as he's developed.
That description needed a qualifier, though, since in the first two months of 2016, Jose Altuve has been playing like someone else entirely. Through Saturday's games, he was tied for the lead in fWAR with a guy named Mike Trout, sitting at a cool 8th in WARP, and by either measure about halfway to his previous best season, in only 200 plate appearances. Based on his profile, you might reasonably think he's been on the receiving end of some BABIP luck, and that he might regress down to his pre-career levels, but that would be wrong. His BABIP is actually down .007 from 2014 to 2015, and at .338, pretty much what should be expected. What have not been expected are his remarkable surges in power (.260 ISO) and patience (11.9 precent walk rate), leading to a wRC+ of 178, more than 40 points better than his previous full-season best.
It's always tough to know how much to believe in a breakout like this, but Altuve certainly looks different, and the projection systems, generally very slow to react to sudden changes, have changed their opinions of him somewhat.
|Original Proj. BB%||Current Proj. BB%||Original Proj. ISO||Current Proj. ISO|
Each of the systems had basically the same opinion of Altuve to start 2016, and all of them have gotten substantially more optimistic after his incredible start. Those changes don't seem huge, and they aren't, but that has more to do with the way projection systems than anything Altuve is doing, as they rank among the largest such shifts for any player.
It's also not particularly difficult to figure out the changes Altuve has made that have led to his increased production. His 51.6 percent swing rate in 2014–15 (17th highest among qualified hitters) has plummeted to 42.0 percent in 2016, or, in case the rates alone don't do it for you, from the 17th highest among qualified hitters to the 46th lowest. He went from the 85th percentile to the 25th. That is an enormous shift, coming both on pitches outside the zone (36.1 to 24.7 percent) and inside (69.8 to 62.9 percent).
Altuve is one of those guys who perhaps made too much contact, in a sense. By swinging at an exceptionally high rate, and making contact with almost everything he swung at, he put a lot of balls in play with relatively weak contact that were then turned into outs. By focusing his swings onto better pitches, his balls in play are of a higher quality, and it comes with the happy side effect of a vastly increased walk rate. In 2014 and 2015, Altuve averaged 35 walks in a full season; in two months of 2016, he already has 24.
Notably, he's whiffing slightly more than he did in the past (85.0 percent, down from 90.4), which is somewhat odd, given that his swings are coming on better, more hittable pitches. This is pure speculation, but that could be a side effect of Altuve swinging a little harder, and "selling out" for power. With a contact rate as high as his, a few more whiffs and strikeouts is an acceptable cost for the amount of power he's added.
The question going forward, as it always is, is whether this will continue. Altuve has kept up his hot start through 200 PAs, which is around the point where a hot start stops being a hot start and starts being a breakout. Pitchers have had time to understand and prepare for this new version of Altuve, and it hasn't worked. Perhaps also weighing in favor of this being sustainable is this anecdote from Ken Rosenthal:
was it...was it really this simple pic.twitter.com/ro3hdP1xTM— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) May 19, 2016
Hudgens: you should swing at better pitches— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) May 19, 2016
Hudgens: I know those pitchers are incomprehensibly talented, bu-
Altuve: I got it
As Jeff points out, it's hard to believe it could be this simple to make such a drastic change, but if Altuve did simply decide to start doing this, it seems likely that he'll be able to keep it up. Baseball is a game of habit and muscle memory, and making and maintaining changes to those is extremely difficult for everyone. Everyone except Jose Altuve, apparently!
If Altuve can keep this up, it would be a historic feat. I took every qualified player-season from 1970 through 2015, and scaled their walk rates and ISOs to league average for each year. In the top spot of the largest year-to-year changes is the man who occupies the top spot of a great many lists, Barry Bonds. From 2003 to 2004, his walk rate jumped from 316 percent of league average – already insane! – to 437 percent of league average. For the largest jump in the sample to have such a high starting point is insane. Bonds also occupies the largest ISO jump, from 2000 (228 percent of league average) to 2001 (329 percent).
It's easier for Altuve to make gains, because he's historically been below-average in these categories, but if he maintained this pace for a full season, his level of improvement from 2015 would be near the top of both. His 2016 would feature the 16th-largest jump in scaled walk rate, the 52nd-largest jump in scaled ISO, and the 7th-largest combined jump. This would be an all-time step forward of a season.
Of course, betting on Altuve to continue at this pace is probably too optimistic. Taking what he's already done and combining it with what the projections think he will do has him finishing with a 7.8 percent walk rate and .171 ISO, still much better than he's ever done, but not quite historic. Here's hoping getting abruptly and enormously better at baseball is as easy as he says it is.
. . .
Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel. Bryan Grosnick no longer works for BtBS, the scoundrel.