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In this week’s hitting report,’s Michael Beller looks at Houston Astros infielder Jose Altuve, the team’s best hitter who has turned himself into an MVP candidate.

By Michael Beller
July 19, 2016

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Despite all the ink we’ve spilled for the Astros this season, the team’s best hitter has yet to receive his due. Jose Altuve made his third straight All-Star team—the fourth of his career—and is enjoying his finest season yet. The 26-year-old is slashing .348/.418/.551 with 15 homers, 25 doubles and 25 steals. Short of a dramatic reversal, he’s going to win his second AL batting title in the last three seasons. Houston has revived their World Series aspirations, and while the team struggled early this season, Altuve has been a constant.

Altuve’s power surge is his most notable development this season. He has steadily amassed power over the last few seasons, setting a new career high last year when he left the yard 15 times. He just hit his 15th homer this season over the weekend, getting there in more than 200 fewer plate appearances than he had a year ago. That has been the greatest driver of his increase in fantasy value this season, but there’s something else at play that has helped him turn up the power.

Altuve has never been much of a guy to end a plate appearance without putting the ball in play. Coming into this season, he had career strikeout and walk rates of 10.5% and 5%, respectively. Altuve has cut a bit off his career strikeout rate this season, checking in at 9.2% through play Monday. His walk rate, however, has surged all the way to 10%. He has 42 non-intentional walks this season, already a career best, and is one of just four hitters with more walks than strikeouts. The other three are Bryce Harper, David Ortiz and Ben Zobrist.

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As you’d likely guess based on the numbers above, Altuve is swinging less often this season than he usually has in previous years. Altuve’s 46.5% swing rate is 2.5 percentage points lower than his career average, but not the lowest single-season mark of his career. He had a 43.8% swing rate in 2012, his first full year in the majors. The next season, Altuve swung at 48.6% of the pitches he saw. This year’s swing rate might be down from the last couple seasons, but it is not unprecedented.

Altuve has cut his swing rate on pitches in and out of the strike zone, but the larger difference has come on the latter. His 29.6% o-swing rate is a full five percentage points better than his career average. That’s helping him get into more hitter-friendly counts, and he’s making pitchers pay when they challenge him once he’s ahead.

Five of Altuve’s homers this season have come in an even count, two of which were on the first pitch. Another two were in full counts, which is a pseudo-even count, although one in which a pitcher might be more inclined to attack a hitter, especially when the hitter is an elite base stealer like Altuve. He has been ahead in the count for the other eight homers, taking advantage of pitchers when he’s relatively certain they’re going to come back into the strike zone.

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Altuve has not hit one homer when behind in the count this season, but that’s not a bad thing given his skill set. A true power hitter remains a homer threat when the pitcher is ahead, but that isn’t Altuve’s game, even with him showing more pop than ever this season. Altuve is, first and foremost, a hitter who makes a ton of contact and gets on base with the best of them. He’s naturally going to default to that approach when he’s behind in the count. The change we’ve seen from him this year is an increased ability to exploit plus counts to the utmost while not giving up any of his contact skills.

Altuve put both of those approaches on display against the Mariners on Sunday. He went 4-for-5 with a homer in the game, an 8–1 Astros victory. His roundtripper came in the third inning and his second at-bat of the game against starter Mike Montgomery. With Marwin Gonzalez on second, Montgomery fell behind Altuve 3–0. Correa was on deck and there was nobody out, so Montgomery understandably didn’t want to walk Altuve. Thinking the second baseman might be in take mode, Montgomery pumped a 92-mph fastball right over the middle of the plate. That might have worked against Altuve in the past, but not this season.

It’s not often you see a 5' 6" so sure of a home run that he watches it for a second or two before going into his trot. That’s the mark of a player who knows what a homer feels like right when he hits it, and that is a trait Altuve has added to his game this year.

Altuve made his fourth trip to the plate in the seventh inning. After collecting three hits against Montgomery, he was facing Nathan Karns for the first time. Karns jumped ahead with a get-me-over knuckle-curve that Altuve took for strike one.

It’s not the sharpest curveball of Karns’s career, but it’s in the zone and a safe pitch to throw to start an at-bat, with a high likelihood that Altuve would take it once he identified it as not a fastball. That’s exactly what happened, putting Karns ahead of one of the best hitters in the league.

Karns came back with the same pitch in the 0–1 count, which, in hindsight, might seem foolish. It’s not often that you’d want to double up on a hitter like Altuve, especially when that’s the only pitch he has seen you throw on the day. Karns should probably put this one in the memory bank.

This is a far superior curve to the first one Karns threw Altuve. It has more break and is out of the zone down. We might quibble with the pitch selection, but there was nothing wrong with the pitch itself. It’s a great curve for an 0–1 count, likely to induce a swing and miss should the hitter offer at it. Altuve, of course, is no normal hitter. He stays on the curve and drives it with authority into center for his fourth hit of the day, notching his fifth four-hit game this season.

Altuve has been an elite hitter for three years running, adding new elements to his arsenal along the way. This year, he became one of the most discerning hitters in the league, as well as one of the most opportunistic. That has turned him from perennial All-Star into MVP candidate.

Hitters to watch this week

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays

Altuve has his work cut out for him to get his hands on the AL MVP trophy. Let’s check in on the entire race, starting with last year’s winner. Donaldson has a real chance to be the second repeat AL MVP of the decade after Miguel Cabrera achieved the feat in 2013. He’s hitting .302/.416/.589 with 23 homers, 66 RBI and a major league leading 82 runs. At the very least, he’s tracking toward his third top-five MVP finish in the last four years. One potential snag for him is the excellent season of teammate Edwin Encarnacion, which could result in the two splitting votes and letting someone else get to the top.

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Mike Trout, OF, Angels

Trout is the only player in MLB history to finish in the top two in MVP voting in his first four years in the league, and he could very well add another year onto the streak. The 24-year-old is hitting .319/.424/.567 with 19 homers, 22 doubles, 62 RBI, 72 runs and 15 steals. That he’s doing it on a team where he’s the only consistent threat in the lineup speaks to the fact that there’s no good way to pitch to him. You could argue that Trout should be working on a string of four straight MVP awards, not just four straight top-two finishes. The field is more crowded this year than it has been in any of Trout’s previous seasons, but he’ll have as compelling an argument as anyone. The misguided team-success crowd, however, could block him from what would be the second MVP award of his career.

David Ortiz, 1B, Red Sox

For all the great achievements Ortiz has had in his career—member of the 500-homer club, two World Series rings, nearly 2,500 hits—he has never won an MVP. He finished in the top five in five straight seasons from 2003 through ’07, but topped out in second place behind Alex Rodriguez in ’05. Now, in his final season at the age of 40, Ortiz might finally break through. He leads the majors in OBP (.421), slugging percentage (.663), OPS (1.085) and doubles (34). Ortiz is hitting .327, which would be the second-best average of his career, and has 22 homers and 72 RBI. The best age-40 season of all-time could wind up netting Ortiz the first MVP award of his career.

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Daniel Murphy, 2B/1B/3B, Nationals

Over in the National League, Murphy is one of the MVP favorites, placing himself on a list that includes Kris Bryant, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Anthony Rizzo and Nolan Arenado. Murphy, however, is dealing with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss Washington’s weekend series with Pittsburgh. He did get one pinch-hit appearance, tying Sunday’s game with a ninth-inning home run. The first-year National has helped swing the NL East race by hitting .350/.388/.608 with 18 homers, 25 doubles and 67 RBI this season. He’s expected to make his return in short order, but be sure to keep an eye on him when he gets back in the field.

Josh Bell, 1B/OF, Pirates

Bell made a splashy debut at the end of the first half, going 2 for 2 with a homer—a pinch-hit grand slam—two walks and four RBI before the Pirates abruptly sent him back to Triple A Indianapolis after the All-Star break. Even with Bell in the minors, however, you’re going to want to monitor his progress. Originally an outfielder, the Pirates moved the 23-year-old to first base with Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco locked into their spots. Polanco is dealing with a hamstring injury that has had him out of the Pittsburgh lineup since July 8, and the Pirates are finally considering putting him on the DL. The plan is for Bell to play the outfield with Indianapolis with an eye on helping make up for Polanco’s absence. Don’t cut him just yet if you grabbed him before his initial promotion. He should be back in the majors sooner rather than later.

Prospect watch

Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Cubs

The trade deadline is less than two weeks away, and the Cubs will almost certainly add a reliever before August arrives. They’ve been reluctant to move anyone who has already contributed in the majors, however, seemingly taking players like Kyle Schwarber and, to a lesser extent, Jorge Soler off the table. While the Cubs lineup is filled with players who rode elite prospect profiles to the majors over the last few seasons, they still boast a deep farm system. Vogelbach is one of the organization’s latest gems, and could find himself as the bait that ultimately gets the Cubs a key relief piece.

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Vogelbach is a Schwarber clone at the plate, slashing .310/.419/.533 with 15 homers, 18 doubles and 63 RBI in his first season at Triple A Iowa. Unlike Schwarber, however, he doesn’t have the versatility to make himself a passable outfielder. Vogelbach’s path to the majors is as a first baseman, and that position is already spoken for on the North Side of Chicago for the foreseeable future. With Anthony Rizzo blocking Vogelbach, and the DH still an AL-only feature, it’s looking increasingly likely that the 23-year-old will eventually make his major league debut with an organization other than the one that drafted him.

If Vogelbach does indeed end up as part of a trade before the deadline, there’s a good chance that debut would come this season with enough time for him to make a fantasy impact. If he’s still a Cub on August 1, we likely won’t see him until September, and even then he’d be unlikely to get many at-bats without a regular spot in the lineup. Should Vogelbach be the asset the Cubs use to improve their bullpen, and assuming his new team would want to see what it has in the 23-year-old, he’d instantly become a relevant player in all fantasy formats.

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