Where Did Jose Altuve's 2014 Come From?
Jose Altuve has been one of the few brights spots for the Houston Astros since he debuted in 2011. During his first two full seasons, Altuve was an average hitter among many below average hitters, who was more notable for his lack of height than for his play on the field.
Altuve changed this narrative in 2014 with a breakout year that thrust his baseball career to the next level while even gaining some MVP support. His .341 batting average, 225 hits and 56 stolen bases are all tops in their respective categories, and his 47 doubles is good for second in the league. Almost as impressive as his overall numbers is his improvement from 2013, as Altuve saw his OPS+ jump 45 points, among many other improvements I’ll discuss.
So what changed?
I’m big on plate discipline, but there are two sides to that argument. The most talked about one is whether hitters are swinging at pitches in the zone and taking pitches out of the zone. The other, less-talked about factor, is pitch recognition. For a hitter to be successful, they have to do more than swing at hittable pitches, they have to smash hittable pitches. Altuve has done just that, according to this chart. For those of you who don’t know, wFB is fastball runs above average, wSL is slider runs above average, wCB is curveball runs above average and wCH is changeup runs above average.
Altuve set a career high in wSL, wCB and wCH. Most would see this as an example of his pitch recognition, which is definitely part of it. However, according to Brooks Baseball, Altuve has a poor eye on breaking and off-speed pitches. So what gives? There are two explanations to his ability to hit off-speed pitches without having great pitch recognition. First, he's a ridiculous contact hitter. He boasted a 91% Contact% this season, while only swinging and missing 4% of the time.
Second, he doesn’t let fastballs go by. Brooks' lists Altuve as having a “very aggressive,” approach against fastballs. So combine that with the fact that he sees fastballs 58% of the time, and you have a player that abuses fastballs and uses his unbelievable contact ability to hit breaking and off-speed pitches. His .360 BABIP also didn't hurt
He’s Making Good Contact
Simply making contact does nobody good. Just check out the top hitters in the league, according to Contact%, since 2011. You'll find Chris Getz sitting at nine and Jamey Carroll at 11.
Altuve proved that during his first few years in the bigs, hitting a ton of ground balls, but he had a good enough LD% to allow him to hit for a decent average. However, this season Altuve had a career high FB% and LD% and career low in GB%, which produced more power than we had ever seen from him. This is evident by the 90-point increase in SLG%, which were aided by the 47 doubles I mentioned earlier.
This increase in power is what really took Altuve to the next level. His OPS of .830 was a 152-point increase off his 2013 mark and registers higher than players like Hanley Ramirez, Matt Holliday and Adrian Gonzalez. And if you’re skeptical about most of that OPS being his on-base skills, he is also slugging at a higher rate than Holliday, Yoenis Cespedes, and Carlos Santana
Is Altuve Here to Stay?
2014 has been a breakthrough year for Jose Altuve, because he went from being a marginal contact hitter to being an elite contact hitter with power. Not to mention those 55 stolen bases. Altuve has become a force that wreaks havoc on pitchers in the box and on the bases, and I do think he’s here to stay. However, that's not saying to expect this type of season from him in 2015. His BABIP is the second-highest in baseball, and that stat is one of the key factors in picking out regression candidates, which I think Altuve will be in 2015. But that's natural. Despite the possibility of regression, Jose Altuve is not going anywhere.