Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is one of the hardest people in baseball to get out. Between an excellent career contact rate (88.4 percent), an all-fields approach to the ball, and some excellent wheels, he leads all of baseball in hits since 2014 with 734, nearly 100 more than second-place Robinson Cano. He also leads baseball in batting average in that time, at .329, and is 12th in OBP despite ranking 191st in walk rate, while also amassing 100 infield hits since 2014. Again, he’s a hard out, generally. But this year, his strikeout rate has leapt over 10 percent for the first time since 2013, the year before he became JOSE ALTUVE. What gives?
To be clear, a 13.1 percent strikeout rate places Altuve 146th in baseball in that metric. It's not like it's suddenly at Judge-ian levels; he's just bounced up more than three percentage points from a year ago. In baseball though, a game that is used to slow trends that lead somewhere eventually, that is eyebrow-raising to say the least. It's the same reason there's such confusion and study over the home run boom — it's completely out of the ordinary and a stark departure from any trend. Three percentage points is what separates Altuve and Nolan Arenado at 110th, or Robby Grossman, who actually leads baseball in walk rate, and 27th-ranked Carlos Santana. It's a big jump in the scheme of things.
Last year to this point, Altuve actually had a 9.1 percent strikeout rate, lower than he ended the year with, but he also packed a 165 wRC+. Along with the lower K rate, that's 20 points better in wRC+ than he's at this year. Altuve was in the midst of a power surge that led to his third-place finish in the MVP voting. He hit 25 homers on the year, 13 of them before June 27th. This year his power rate has taken a bit of a step back with only 11 home runs and a .201 ISO compared to .212 to this point a year ago, though he did end 2016 with a .194 ISO. If anything he's on track for more power production this year. Unless his season follows the same rhthym as 2016, of course.
We've seen across baseball the trend of more strikeouts in order to add more power, but that doesn't really seem to be Altuve's MO. He's pulling the ball less this year, 39.3 percent compared to 45.3 for all last season, and 41.3 percent to this point a year ago. So he got pull-happy in the second half, and did strike out more, but he didn’t hit for more power. He only hit 12 the rest of the season and had a .178 ISO from late June on. It’s a very odd power fall-off, despite pulling the ball more more and striking out more. Maybe it was a reversion to a truer self. Whatever it was, it’s strange.
Another odd thing: Despite striking out more, Altuve is actually swinging less (45.5 percent of the time compared to 49.1 last year) AND going after pitches out of the zone less, 33.2 percent compared to 34.2 percent a year ago. And yet, he is missing more frequently on those out-of-the-zone pitches, making contact on only 74.1 percent of swings at those pitches, nearly two points less than 2016. Specifically, balls above the zone are giving him trouble. Altuve whiffed like this last year:
Compare that to this season, and the stark redness above the zone:
This wouldn’t be a problem, or at least not a huge one, except that he’s also chasing those pitches more often. Here’s 2016:
And here’s this year:
This may be what it looks like when opposing pitchers find a hole in a hitter’s swing, and also a tendency. It’s strange, because it seems like the type of approach that comes from someone pressing, trying to do too much. Altuve is on the best team in the American League, possibly in baseball, and is surrounded by supreme talents of all types. Their offense can fall backwards into four runs on any day of the week. If anything, he’s in a position where he’s expected to do less than ever. But pride is a bastard. He likely wanted the MVP a year ago so badly, but simply wasn’t good enough to face down a fish-man-god. That god has been felled temporarily, and maybe Altuve, stricken with hubris, saw an opening and is chasing 30 home runs to his own detriment.
The strikeouts aren’t hurting his power numbers, or not really anyway. He’s two home runs (or one start at home against a meatball-throwing pitcher) from matching his total to this point a year ago, is two back in doubles and has more triples. If anything, it’s his drop in line drive rate (17.7 percent this year. 27.6 last year) that’s truly troubling. He’s already grounded into 11 double plays compared to 15 all of last year. Between chasing high pitches and not getting as much elevation on the ball, you have to wonder what’s up with Altuve. He isn’t even approaching his prime, but he’s not doing the things that made him a superstar.
Merritt Rohlfing writes for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, and hosts the much-beloved podcast Mostly Baseball. He can be found on Twitter @merrittrohlfing, or wandering the streets of our nation’s capital.