(photo: Houston Chronicle)
Ever since 1903, when the first World Series was played, October baseball has had a way of putting the “fame” into a baseball player’s Hall of Fame resume. It’s especially true that the post-season has a way of elevating an excellent but largely overlooked player into the status of living legend.
Up until this post-season the Houston Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve was well-known and respected among serious baseball fans but not well known to the casual observer. I guess you would say that he was regarded as a “nice little player,” pun intended. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, according to his Baseball Reference profile, the Venezuelan-born Altuve is one of three 66-inch players in all of Major League Baseball and by far the most productive. In addition, he’s easily the best player to don a MLB uniform at the height of 5’6″ since New York Yankees’ legend Phil Rizzuto, who retired 61 years ago.
Normally I wouldn’t start talking about a seven-year player on a website devoted to the Hall of Fame debate but Jose Altuve has introduced himself to the world in such a big way this October that the topic is suddenly germane. This is not Altuve’s first October rodeo but his first taste was sour, the Astros five-game loss in the 2015 ALDS to the Kansas City Royals. In that series, Altuve went 3 for 22.
2017 has been different, for the team and for their best player. In this year’s ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, Altuve had his Reggie Jackson moment. OK, it wasn’t on the series-clinching World Series Game 6 stage but, in Game 1, Altuve belted three home runs; it was only the 10th time in baseball history that a player has swatted three taters in a post-season game. The other nine to do it? Babe Ruth (twice), Bob Robertson, Jackson, George Brett, Adam Kennedy (yes, Adam Kennedy), Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols, Pablo Sandoval and Kike Hernandez (in the 2017 NLCS). All told, Altuve hit .533 with a 1.765 OPS in the Astros four-game series win.
Next, in the ALCS for the first time, Altuve had his Ken Griffey Jr. moment in Game 2. Facing the New York Yankees, with one out in the bottom of the 9th of a tie game, Altuve slapped a single to left field off Aroldis Chapman. The next batter, Carlos Correa, went the other way against Chapman, tagging a hard-hit double to right center field. Altuve raced around the base paths from first to home in just over 10 seconds, which MLB StatCast says was his fastest “first to home” time since 2015. Altuve needed every millisecond as Aaron Judge and relay man Didi Gregorious both made strong throws. Fortunately for Altuve and the Astros, catcher Gary Sanchez couldn’t field the ball cleanly; Altuve scored and the Astros had a 2-0 series lead.
After the Yankees swept three games in New York, the Astros needed to win the final two games in Houston to book a trip to the World Series. Houston’s pitchers did their part, holding the Bronx Bombers to one run. As for Houston’s star second baseman, Altuve homered in both games and delivered a key, bases loaded two-run single in the bottom of the 5th of Game 6.
Even if the Astros had not won the Fall Classic, Altuve’s exploits in the LDS and LCS would have been enough upon which to confer “October hero” status but, by appearing in the Fall Classic, the powerful 2nd sacker had the opportunity to shine on baseball’s biggest stage. Altuve hit .400 in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He hit just .194 in the World Series, but those few hits came in the biggest moments.
He went just 1 for 6 in Game 2; the “one” was a go-ahead solo home run to lead off the 10th inning. Then, in the wild Game 5 thriller, Altuve had two mega-moments: his three-run home run off Kenta Maeda in the bottom of the 5th to tie the score at 7 and, in his next at bat, his tie-breaking RBI double off Brandon Morrow to give the Astros a 9-8 lead. The Astros’ seven-game Series win featured two extra inning games that were all-time classics and Altuve was a crucial cog in both of those wins.
So, as the Astros second baseman has now announced himself on baseball’s post-season stage, let’s take a brief look at how the five-time All-Star is doing in building his Hall of Fame resume. Obviously, it’s early in his career: Altuve is only 27 years old, having just finished his 7th and best season in the majors. Most pundits rate him with a 50-50 chance to be the A.L. MVP this year, with his chief competition being the Yankees’ rookie Aaron Judge. Ironic that the shortest and tallest position players in the majors are the two chief candidates for the MVP hardware.
Jose Altuve was signed as an amateur free agent on March 6, 2007, two months before his seventeenth birthday. After hitting .389 at class A and AA in 2011, Altuve was called up to the majors and, just a couple of months past his 21st birthday, made his MLB debut on July 20th. Immediately, he became the starting second baseman for the rebuilding Astros. Altuve was hardly an instant star but a serviceable starter at the position.
In 2012, Altuve started to make a name for himself, hitting .360 in the month of April. His batting average had dipped to .303 by the Mid-Summer Classic but the hot start was good enough to earn him a berth on the National League All-Star team (this was the last year that the Astros were a member of the six-team N.L. Central before realignment put them in the A.L. West). In fairness, Altuve was not yet one of the three or four best second sackers in his league but the rule requiring at least one representative from each team was helpful. Altuve finished the season with a .290 average along with 80 runs scored and 33 stolen bases.
The 2013 season was pretty much the same; he hit .283 with 35 steals, but led the league with 13 times caught stealing and scored just 64 runs, a paltry number for player who logged 672 plate appearances and always hit first, second or third in the order. Let’s remember, though, that Houston was still in a full re-build; the 2013 edition won just 51 games and lost 111 so it’s not like Altuve had Gehrig and Ruth to drive him in.
The 2014 Astros improved from 51 to 70 wins and Altuve became a legitimate All-Star and one of the game’s top players. In 2015, Houston jumped up to 86 wins and the rebuilt ‘Stros with all of their young stars made it to the post-season as a wild card team. Take a look at the year-by-year numbers during the age 24 through 27 seasons for the height-challenged man who has become the best second baseman in baseball and one of its best players overall.
|Courtesy Baseball Reference||Bold: Led League||Bold Italics: Led Majors|
The 2014-2017 version of Jose Altuve is clearly a Hall of Fame caliber player. He’s averaged 211 hits per year while hitting .334 and sporting a park-adjusted 145 OPS+, which is the 9th best in MLB for that span. He’s behind five outfielders and three first baseman so he has demonstrably become the game’s premier hitter at the middle infield positions. During these four seasons, Altuve is also, with a minimum of 2,000 plate appearances…
- 3rd best in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) among all players, behind only Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson
- First in batting average (.334), 22 points ahead of 2nd-place Joey Votto
- First in hits (845), a whopping 98 more than 2nd best Charlie Blackmon
- First in doubles (168)
- 3rd in stolen bases (behind Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon, neither of whom provide remotely close to Altuve’s overall offensive value)
The offensive statistics alone place him among the top 10 position players in baseball over the last four seasons. The fact that he’s done it from the second base position makes it all the more impressive. And, among all second basemen, he’s garnered three straight Silver Sluggers and is certain to get a fourth this year.
Altuve is one of just six players in the last 100 years to get over 200 hits four times by the end of his age 27 season and the first in over 50 years.
What’s turned Altuve from an excellent All-Star from 2014-2015 into a MVP candidate in 2016-2017 is the increase in power and plate discipline. Look at the numbers above and you’ll notice the increase in home runs and walks. In the first 668 games of his career, he hit 36 home runs. In three at bats in Game 1 of the ALDS, he hit three, two of them against Cy Young candidate Chris Sale.
So, the question of the day is what kind of Hall of Fame resume Altuve is building.
The answer is that he’s amassing exactly the types of achievements that Hall of Fame voters have historically been looking for. Decades ago, sabermetric pioneer Bill James created a “Hall of Fame monitor.” From the Baseball Reference page on the topic, the Hall of Fame monitor “attempts to assess how likely (not how deserving) an active player is to make the Hall of Fame. Using its rough scale, 100 means a good possibility and 130 is a virtual cinch.” Some examples of how you accumulate points:
- 2.5 points for each season above a .300 batting average
- 6 points for leading the league in batting average
- 5 points for each season of over 200 hits
- 3 points for each All-Star Game
Using those four categories alone, Altuve has accumulated 60 Hall of Fame monitor “points” over just the last four seasons. Traditionally speaking, Hall of Fame voters like batting champions, they like All-Stars and they like players who get 200 hits. These are all things Altuve is doing pretty much every year now. The voters also like MVPs and Altuve has a chance to add that to his resume.
All told, the James method credits Altuve with 105 career points, which already puts him into a “good possibility” for the Hall of Fame. And he’s only 27 years old. So let’s compare him to other 2nd basemen over the past 55 years. I took this back 55 years (to 1963) to give Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Rod Carew credit for their rookie campaigns. This is how Altuve ranks in a variety of statistical categories with the 28 total 2nd sackers who accumulated at least 3,000 plate appearances through their age 27 seasons.
|Minimum 3,000 PA through age 27 season|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference||*Hall of Famer|
You read this right. Altuve, through his age 27 season (his 7th in the majors) has the same batting average as the legendary Carew, who hit .316 in his first 7 seasons. Both players had already won three batting titles at this time in their careers but, with developing power and more speed, Altuve’s overall numbers are a cut above.
Carew’s 7th season (in 1973) represented his first legitimate candidacy for the A.L. MVP (he finished 4th); Altuve is a candidate for the 2nd straight year. This is not to say that Altuve is destined for a career like Carew’s, but he might be. He’s already gotten four straight 200-hit seasons; Carew only managed that four times in his entire career.
What’s most interesting about these ranks is the absence of Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan on most of this list. Morgan shows up with the 2nd best on-base percentage but nothing else; Sandberg isn’t in the top 3 of any of these categories through his age 27 season. Morgan, Sandberg and Carew all had some of their best seasons from the ages of 28 to 33. If Altuve has seasons equal or better than what he’s done the last couple of seasons in his future, he’ll be in Cooperstown for sure.
There’s are some cautionary tales on this list. Altuve’s WAR through his age 27 season is 6th best, behind Bobby Grich, Roberto Alomar, Willie Randolph, Chuck Knoblauch and Lou Whitaker. Of this list, only Alomar is a Hall of Famer, although the sabermetric community is lobbying hard for Grich and Whitaker because they each posted a career WAR of over 70.
Altuve is behind the others because the defensive metrics showed him to be a poor defensive player early in his career. But he’s getting better. He won the Gold Glove in 2015 and has already made a couple of spectacular plays this October, bolstering his “eye test” credentials as a good defensive player.
Unless he suffers chronic injuries, Altuve has many good years ahead of him. He could keep performing at his current level for years or he could fall off a cliff. If I were putting money on it, I’d wager that he’ll remain one of the top second basemen in the game for the next several years and eventually make it into the Hall of Fame.
Thanks for reading.