Jose Altuve stands at 5 feet 6 inches tall. That’s really short, especially when you consider the fact that the median baseball player in 2016 is 6 feet tall, and has been getting taller for years.
This makes Jose Altuve quite an outlier in today’s game. But Altuve doesn’t have the profile that one would necessarily expect, making him an outlier even among the diminutive.
Typically, players who are shorter are thought to be lacking in hitting ability but make up for it with their fielding and speed. But that’s never been Altuve. In fact, none of the fielding metrics seem to think he’s a good defender. For his career, FRAA’s got him at -15.2, DRS at -25, and UZR at -28.7. There’s a lot of noise and uncertainty when it comes to defensive metrics, but when they all unanimously agree like this, it probably means you should take them seriously. Basically, it’s safe to assume that Altuve is a pretty poor fielder.
When it comes to his baserunning, there’s some disagreement with his metrics, but the overall conclusion is that Altuve is probably above average (he steals a lot), but not great (he gets thrown out a lot).
This leaves us with his hitting, which is where Altuve truly shines. In 2016, he finished with an OPS+ of 154, which ranked seventh in all of baseball among qualified players. That’s a great hitting performance for just about anyone, but when you include Altuve’s height in the equation, that’s when you really start to realize just how special he is.
There is literally no one as short as Altuve in today’s game when examining all qualified hitters. Let that sink in for a second. There were 139 qualified players in 2016, and none of them were even near Altuve’s height (or lack thereof). Player’s like Altuve simply don’t exist in today’s game. They either don’t get drafted, don’t make it through the minors, or don’t get playing time.
Ironically, there also doesn’t appear to be a great relationship between overall hitting and a player’s height; short guys appear to be able to hit just fine. Now, this is a small sample size of just a single season, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that teams and scouts have an unwarranted bias towards taller hitters. But further investigation would need to be conducted in order to come to that conclusion with any kind of certainty.
Shorter players are also not thought of as great power hitters, but once again, Altuve breaks that mold.
While there isn’t a great relationship between height and hitting, there is a pretty good relationship between height and power.
Altuve here isn’t as jaw-dropping as in the OPS+ chart, but it’s still amazing to consider that he’s able to hit with as much power as he does, given his height.
Mookie Betts is also another interesting player here. He’s not the tallest player (if not as short as Altuve), but he’s able to generate a surprising amount of power. Betts is actually a more well-rounded player than Altuve; he’s a better baserunner and a much better fielder. While his offense wasn’t as good as Altuve’s in 2016, a 131 OPS+ is nothing to sneeze at and is still well above average.
These graphs, though simply show Altuve in 2016. Putting him into greater context would give us a better indication into how unique of a player he truly is.
Since 1985, there have only been eight players to ever play in the majors who were Altuve’s height. I didn’t even set a plate appearance or games limit here, meaning that there have literally only been eight players who were 5’ 6” in baseball since 1985.
The only non-Altuve short guy who was even respectable was David Eckstein, who finished with a career WAR value of 20.8 and did much to shape our perception of this archetype of player. Eckstein was a solid and scrappy player, never the greatest hitter but solid enough defensively and on the basepaths to carve himself a nice ten-year career.
Altuve is not a nice little player. Altuve is a superstar. Nobody would have ever confused David Eckstein for an MVP candidate, but last year Altuve absolutely was. At 26, Altuve already has a higher career WAR of 21.4 than Eckstein. He also has accumulated more WAR than any other player who was 5 feet 6 inches. And he’s been able to accomplish this in just six major league seasons.
In many ways, this is a great scouting and player development story by the Astros. The Astros could have easily traded Altuve, or they could have never given him a chance based on his height. They didn’t have to give him a fair shake at the major league level. After all, nobody could have foreseen this coming, and nobody should have. Players who perform the way Altuve has don’t come along very often, and just about none of them have his body type.
That said, in terms of height alone, Altuve and his height isn’t the biggest outlier. That belongs to players who stand at 6 feet 8 inches tall, which is the tallest height for baseball players since 1985. Only Tony Clark who played fifteen seasons in the big leagues, and Nate Freiman, who only has two years in the bigs under his belt, were that tall. Most baseball players are from 5 feet 11 inches to 6 feet 3 inches tall. Of course, this is just for position players. I would suspect that pitchers would, on average, be taller, but this is just speculation.
When it comes to Altuve, we’ll see whether he can continue his production. Repeating his 2016 performance will be challenging, but even if he regresses to his 2015 and 2014 performance, he’s still an amazing story, and a type of player that has never been seen before in the modern game of baseball.
All data for the graphs from Baseball-Reference.
Julien Assouline is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He’s written for Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, and BP Milwaukee. You can follow him on Twitter @JulienAssouline.