Last week, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs published a piece wondering about how to get more balls put in play. Baseball, in its ever more intense chase of efficiency, has been moving away from balls in play and toward a game of Three True Outcomes whenever possible. This is “smart” baseball. It’s also boring after a while. Especially at the park. That’s why what’s happening in Houston this year is so exciting. Amid this massive spike in home runs, in a world of power pitchers throwing harder and the strike zone seemingly shrinking to a pinpoint, we have Astros second baseman Jose Altuve leading the race for American League MVP. He is a brilliant player. He is everything the face of baseball should be.
I recognize off the bat this comes off as either “Old Man Yells At Cloud”, or elitist, or hipsterish, I don’t know. I just like watching baseball get played. I like triples and doubles and double plays and running catches in the alley. And I love watching Altuve. In a world with Mike Trout (who I have no problem with, he is the ultimate), Aaron Judge (some problem), or Giancarlo Stanton (yes), Altuve trails only Trout in wRC+ and leads them all in Wins Above Replacement. This from a man who could sit on Judge’s shoulders and barely brush his head on a basketball hoop. But more than that, he's just so dynamic as a baseball player. Maybe it has something to do with that stature, that we assign a special excellence to the sprightliness of players like him. Think of Dustin Pedroia, or David Eckstein. We assume they have to fight extra hard because they are tiny men, even if in Pedroia or Altuve’s case they are truly, supremely talented. Altuve is tiny compared to his peers, and it seems more impressive since he's not built like a linebacker. But even if he were nine feet tall, it doesn't matter. This is about how he baseballs. He keeps the field involved.
More than just Altuve's skillset, this is about fighting back against the Three True Outcomes. Again, efficiency is going to rule the day in a world of talent scarcity that baseball inhabits. But I want to be entertained, and I've had my fill of home runs, walks and strikeouts. Altuve hits some home runs, but his 14 percent HR/FB ratio is good for 77th in baseball. Despite this, he's 11th in slugging percentage and fourth in total bases. When you get more hits than anyone and are on pace for another 40-50 double season along with a handful of triples, your numbers chase those of the prototypical power hitters. Altuve does it all in a fun way, too. His 85.2 percent contact rate and 92.3 in-zone contact rate are each top 20 rates, and his 13 percent infield hit rate is fifth in baseball. Between all that and Altuve's league-leading 28 stolen bases, he's just a ball of energy. He is action, dynamism. He's 78th in walk rate, yet he's one of the best offensive threats in the game. He's the kind of player that should be at the forefront of any MLB star-making effort.
There are players that capture this approach to the game even better than Altuve, even if they aren’t as good at baseball in general. Two of my own favorite players, Jose Ramirez and Michael Brantley, don’t walk an overt amount, but Ramirez is 10th in contact rate at 87.4 percent while hitting a ton of doubles and slugging .528, and Brantley tops him even him at 88.7 percent contact rate. If he had a whole season, he’d likely reach that 45 doubles plateau he makes a home on when he has a full season. And they’re both excellent players. Brantley got MVP votes a few years back before he got hurt, and this year was on his way to a 3-4 WAR season before, again, injury. Ramirez though. This guy should be the star in the making more than anyone. He had the beginning of a ride to prominence in June when he turned into a literal fireball and hit .367/.405/.661, but he’s fallen out of the public eye a bit. I blame this on his fade back to mere very-goodness, and also the continued fascination with the home run and the cramming of it into the face of the viewer.
Which brings us back to my personal scourge, Aaron Judge. The young Yankee knows not what he does to me. He is an incredible talent, able to hit a ball out of space-time, and has the eye at the plate to make it work. But due to the confluence of his being on the Yankees and hitting a ton of home runs as a rookie, he’s been all that most national media talks about. Baseball being the regional game that it is, it’s hard for players to escape their local broadcast unless they either have a national media construct behind them, or in MIke Trout’s case are simply too good to ignore. That's the problem. Players like Ramirez or Altuve are very good, and are on very good teams. But they don’t wear the right uniform, and don’t do the obviously flashy thing that catches the eye of the casual fan. This ignoring of them by ESPN and their ilk is a disservice to those same casual fans.
In this near-pointless complaint of mine, I am reminded of the meteoric rise of Stephen Curry in the NBA. Being the size of seemingly a normal human being (comparatively) and yet able to utterly dominate larger, stronger foes has gone a long way in making Steph a true star. Kids without obvious physical gifts are drawn to him. Players of his size just aren’t meant to be this great. So too with Altuve, or Ramirez, or Anthony Rendon perhaps. Players that don’t have the stupendous power numbers, but have such a dazzling all-around skillset that they are impossible to ignore. It’s the kind of game you can develop without being a superhuman. These should be our stars, not Judge or Stanton. The home run is boring. Altuve is excitement. Ramirez is relatable. By holding players like these on a pedestal, you influence a generation of younger players, just as Curry is influencing a generation of young basketball players (and infuriating middle school and AAU coaches) to use the three-pointer to make the big man obsolete. Maybe promoting these multi-tool players won’t kill TTO Baseball, in fact it just won’t. It’s too attractive, to obvious a path to winning. The days of old school “fundamentals” are over. We’re in it for power now. But maybe we can squeeze a few more line drives out of these guys instead. Get some more fun, some action. That’s all any of us want.