The emergence of Jose Altuve has been as exciting and dramatic as it gets for a professional baseball player. He has become one of the best all-around players in the game, despite his own organization not giving him a chance in his first foray into professional baseball. He attended a tryout at the Astros’ Venezuela facility in 2006 and was basically told to go home because of his diminutive stature. The persistent Altuve showed up again in 2007, and this time Houston gave him a shot. The Astros signed him as an undrafted free agent for a mere $15,000 and sent him to the Dominican Summer League.
Twenty wins (per FanGraphs) and nearly $13 million later, Altuve is a key part of the Astros resurgence as a force in the American League. He has posted at least a 4.5 fWAR since every season 2014, though his bat has taken a bit of a step back in the early going this season.
Through 53 games, Altuve has a slash line of .319/.386/.505. His wRC+ of 143 is a bit lower than his 150 last season (his career high). The biggest change this season however, has been a significant increase in his strikeout rate. Altuve entered the year with a career 10.3 percent strikeout rate over the course of over 3600 plate appearances. This season, in 228 PAs, he’s nearly 50 percent higher, at 14.9 percent.
But so far in 2017, Altuve’s swing percentage is 44.9 percent, lower than his career mark of 49.1 percent, and that’s true for pitches both in and out of the strike zone. Despite his swing rates being lower, however, he’s making less contact. Altuve’s O-Contact rate is 73.2 percent, compared to his career average of 79.9 percent, and his Z-Contact rate is 91.0 percent compared to 94.0 for his career.
What’s going on beneath the surface? Why is he making less contact?
Altuve is currently getting owned by pitchers throwing up and in, and staying on the inner-half of the plate. The right-handed Altuve has yet to put any ball in play that’s up-and-in, or inside-middle of the plate. While we would not expect great numbers on pitches high and inside, out of the zone, he’s barely putting the bat on the ball on any pitches on the inside third of the plate, well within the strike zone. He is 3 for 30 on pitches on the lower-inside part of the plate, and a remarkable 0 for 114 on pitches in the middle/inside and upper/inside part of the plate.
Compare the above chart to his career numbers prior to 2017, and you will see at least some success on pitches that have a goose-egg on them in 2017.
The light red turned to purple, the purple turned to blue, and the light blue turned an icy-ineffective-zero-blue.
That’s in the aggregate; looking at the splits, the story is especially bad in two-strike counts. Altuve has been exceedingly ineffective in making contact in two strike counts to the point where he’s barely made any contact at all. He’s hitting around .180 in two-strike counts, and only has six extra base hits (and zero home runs) with two strikes. It’s unclear if he’s selling out with two strikes, or what has actually changed in his approach, but of the 221 two-strike pitches so far this season, he’s only made contact on 26 of them!
Jose Altuve is putting up some seriously good numbers this year, but he’s whiffing more on pitches up-and-in, and performing less well than his career average with two-strikes. When he makes contact (which is often), he’s still driving the ball; he has pretty much the same isolated slugging he put up last year in a 24-homer season.
Altuve is an excellent hitter, but the more pitchers throw inside the zone, the more success they’ll have against him. Any mistakes left over the middle of the plate will cost them dearly. Altuve should maintain an aggressive approach at the plate considering his difficulty making contact in any two strike count. Pitchers are generating first-pitch strikes at a near 70-percent clip this season, which is part of the reason Altuve is striking out more.
Players today can be remarkably successful even with a high strikeout rate. Altuve has always been below league average, but moving from a 10 percent strikeout rate to a 15 percent strikeout rate is never a positive.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano