- Houston's pint-sized MVP candidate may still be a long ways from one of baseball's most exclusive clubs, but his brilliant 2016 season has him closer than you realize.
After winning the American League batting title in 2014 and leading the league in hits in each of the past two seasons, Jose Altuve has stepped up his game. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the 2016 season, the Astros' 5'6" second baseman has already set career highs in home runs (19) and walks (50). And not only does Altuve lead the league in batting average and on-base percentage (.365 and .429, respectively), he's also second in slugging percentage (.573) and Wins Above Replacement (7.0)—numbers that arguably make him the leader in the AL MVP race. On Tuesday night, he collected the 1,000th hit of his career, making him the ninth-youngest player to reach that milestone.
At 26 years and 102 days, Altuve reached 1,000 hits at a younger age than nine players who reached the 3,000-hit plateau, namely Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount, Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker, George Brett and Derek Jeter. It's no given that he'll join them in that exclusive company, but his chances are worth a look.
There are a few ways to go about this. Back in 2009 at Baseball Prospectus, I introduced a quick-and-dirty career estimate tool called JABO—short for Jaffe Blind Optimism—that I showed off in this space a couple of years ago on the occasion of Adrian Beltre’s 2,500th hit. All it's really asking is, "Is that possible?" via a back-of-the envelope methodology based on current season age (as of June 30) and annual progress toward a given goal using a blanket set of assumptions—in this case, another 50 hits this season (roughly, a 200-hit pace) and then 140 hits per year through age 40 (a 3,000 hit pace over a 21 1/2-year career).
Using that as a guide, here's a look at some players who either figure to get there or will come awfully close:
Via that method, which takes no account of a player's current pace, Altuve wouldn't get to 3,000, but he'd be among those within striking distance, along with—brace yourself—Starlin Castro and Nick Markakis? An early start means everything in even the crudest milestone projection system, and both of those players began racking up hits early: Castro with 346 through his age-21 season, Markakis with 334 through his age-23 campaign. Remarkably, it appears that just 10 days past his 25th birthday (but still in his age-24 season), Mike Trout has a shot at 3,000 hits.
Moving up a notch in sophistication is Bill James's "Career Targets" methodology, originally called his "Favorite Toy" back in the Baseball Abstract days. James’s system uses a player's age and established level of performance via a weighted three-year average (three times the most recent season, two times the previous season, plus the season before that, all divided by six). Since the 2016 season is not yet over, the system requires an extra step to project to the end of this year. For this exercise, I merely assumed that every player was three-quarters of the way to his final 2016 total and went from there, which means that players who rank high among active leaders in hits but have played little this year—such as Jimmy Rollins (2,455), Carl Crawford (1,931) and Jose Reyes (1,925)—get crushed. Among that trio, Rollins rated a 16% shot in The Bill James Handbook 2016 and Reyes a 15% shot, but the pair have 54 hits between them this year, and while their relatively productive '13 seasons were previously incorporated into the calculations, now they're gone.
By that methodology, Altuve is one of 16 active players with at least a 10% chance at reaching 3,000, and he has by far the best shot of any player still in his 20s.
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As noted last month, Beltre, Pujols, Cabrera and Cano all look headed toward 3,000 hits and berths in Cooperstown, and all four have improved their chances significantly since the outset of the season; via the Handbook, they came into 2016 at 80%, 69%, 52% and 42%, respectively (Ichiro Suzuki, who passed the 3,000 hit milestone on Aug. 7, came in at 90%).
The list's surprises come just below them, and again, Markakis is in the picture. Though the Braves outfielder is currently hitting a modest .269/.342/.381 for a 97 OPS+, he's been surprisingly durable over his 11-year career, averaging 152 games per season, and he has topped 170 hits eight times—all without making a single All-Star team. His chances have dropped by one percentage point this year.
Note that players even younger than Altuve—Trout, Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado—are all above 10% before their age-25 seasons. They all have complete 2014 and '15 seasons under their feet, but Mookie Betts (386 hits, 9% chance) and Harper (615 hits, 3% chance) do not—the former due to spending most of 2014 in the minors, the latter due to injuries that year.
At the far end of the sophistication scale is Baseball Prospectus' 10-year PECOTA projection. Its rest-of-season version, which incorporates this year into its long-term forecast, puts Altuve at 2,633 hits through 2025, his age-35 season—again, within clear striking distance of 3,000 and well ahead of Castro (2,506), who's about six weeks older than Altuve. From among the other players currently in their 20s, Andrus would be at 2,509 hits through age 36; Trout at 2,293 through age 33; and Machado at 2,124, Bogaerts at 2,002 and Harper at 1,905 through their age-32 seasons. Reaching 3,000 would hardly be out of the question for any of those players, but it would take good health and good luck just the same.
Via that system, which cuts a player off after age 42, Miguel Cabrera is estimated to reach—wait for it—3,967 hits, which would be the third-highest total ever behind Pete Rose and Cobb. Beltre is estimated to reach 3,693 hits (cutting him off at 2021), Cano 3,619 (through '25), Pujols 3,566 (through '22), Markakis 3,096 (through '25, which would be his age-41 season) and Melky Cabrera 2,994 (through '25), a total that likely wouldn't represent a stopping point.
Of course, none of these systems can foresee injuries or rapid declines due to age. The Handbook 2004 gave Roberto Alomar, then entering his age-35 season, a 94% shot at 3,000 hits, but he totaled just 45 that year and hung up his spikes to finish with 2,724. The 2007 book had Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon and Edgar Renteria all between 34–44%, suggesting that at least one would make it, but Damon's 2,769 was as close as any of them got to the milestone.
Still, even the least sophisticated systems can heighten our appreciation for what we're seeing, and in Altuve's case, there's one more number worth taking note: James's system estimates that he has a 9% chance at 4,000 hits, compared to 2% for Cabrera and 1% for Bogaerts, the only others that can be seen with the naked eye. In other words, we could still see another 3,000 hits from Houston’s pint-sized star.