Two Views To Altuve

added 5/23/2013 by Scott Barzilla

The Altuve Dilemma
by Scott Barzilla

I had a three-way Twitter argument the other night on whether the Astros should lock up Jose Altuve to a long-term extension before he becomes eligible for arbitration. He recently changed agencies away from Scott Boras, so it would seem like a good time to engage him on that level. Yet, that isn't the most important question. The most important question is whether he is deserving of such an extension.

Before we even look at a number we must look at the difference between perception and reality. Altuve has two things working for him in this department. First, his diminutive stature has become something of legend. It even spawned its own twitter handle and website "How Many Altuves?"

Secondly, since he came from the prior regime, he came along when there wasn't a ton of talent trickling out of the farm system. In point of fact, he, J.D. Martinez, and Jordan Lyles all had the burden of unrealistic expectations because they were among the few to excel in a barren farm system.

These two points coalesce to create a distorted bit of reality on the situation. We marvel at what Altuve has been able to accomplish in spite of his size. We compare him to the dearth of talent that has come out over the last few seasons. It's easy to ignore that past trickles will turn into a steady stream of prospects. When there is a steady stream it is easier to judge players on their own merits. When there are few players coming out, then each one comes with added expectations and fanfare.

The reality is that you should only lock up players to long-term deals if they are going to be an important part of the organization moving forward. When you have so many players performing badly, it is easy to lose track of what the better players really are.

Is Jose Altuve a legitimate star performer or is he simply the best player on a bad team? Given his relatively young age, it can be easy to assume he will evolve into a star even if he isn't one now. So, let's take a look at some basic numbers to determine whether his current performance represents growth or simply good fortune.

Year       SLASH          BABIP     SO%    BB%    LD%   HR/FB
2011  .276/.297/.357   .309     12.4      2.1     20.4    3.6
2012  .290/.340/.399   .321     11.7      6.3     20.2    5.1
2013  .318/.351/.418   .347     11.9      5.9     25.0    5.9

It's quite easy to look at the basic numbers (SLASH line) and simply assume that Altuve is progressing as a player. That is why we include the other numbers to tell us whether that improvement is a mirage or not. In some ways it is legitimate and some ways it is simply a lack of regression. Altuve has seen increases in both his line drive rate and his home runs per fly ball rate. This would indicate legitimate growth on his part.

On the other hand, we are talking about a considerably higher batting average on balls in play. Some of that can be explained through more line drives, but some of it is the fact that he has yet to regress to the mean.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of Altuve because I'm not a huge fan of the relatively low walk rate. He does make contact at a higher level, so he relies heavily on what happens to those balls while they are in play. I'm also not going to get too excited because of what happened last year.

                                  AVG/OBP/SLG     SO     BB     Ratio    HR
Pre All Star Break        .303/.344/438     45      17     2.65     5
Post All Star Break       .274/.336/.351    29      23     1.26     2

Analyzing statistics is never cut and dried. Altuve improved in some departments as the season went along last season. He walked more often and struck out less often. He also stole more bases (18) in the second half than he did in the first half (15). Unfortunately, both the power (.135 ISO vs. .077) and the batting average on balls in play went way down. (the source for the above numbers) does not break down fielding numbers by first half versus second half, but the limited data does indicate that the fielding got worse as the season wore on. He wound up with -18 fielding runs according to Baseball Reference's formula. They have him as plus five runs this season.

With only one full season to his credit, it is hard to really say whether last season was a trend or a simple anomaly. My twitter friends seemed to want to jump in right now and give him an extension. Without knowing anything about why last season occurred I am inclined to wait. When you total runs created, Dewan fielding runs, and Bill James' baserunning runs you get a total of 60 for Altuve in 2012. That was good enough for 20th among second baseman last season.

Far be it from me to point out the obvious, but I wouldn't give the 20th best player at any position a contract of any significance. That being said, he is running fourth among second basemen in the same statistic this season. If you are talking about a top five player at his position you are talking about something else entirely. The question is whether he will end up the season in the top five or the top ten. If he fades again then it would be foolish to pay him based on what he has done through May.

Jose Altuve certainly is a great story and someone everyone wants to root for. Yet, if there is any advantage to paring down a payroll to its skeleton, it is that you can start over making decisions with great care. You can take each player on their merits. If you strip down all of the facade of a great human interest story you get one basic question: can Jose Altuve finish what he starts? If he does it this season then you can assume he has arrived as a productive player. If not, then he is simply an average regular second baseman with a nice side story.

Little Big Man
by Bob Hulsey

Before Scott's column came to me, I was planning one of my own about Jose Altuve. So, as a bonus to our patient readers, I'm providing a 2-for-1 deal on Altuve opinions without the dynamic pricing (it's all free).

I honestly wasn't worried about a contract extension (Jose doesn't become eligible for arbitration until 2015 and doesn't become eligible for free agency until 2018 according to the same Baseball Reference page, so why the rush? He ought to be affordable for the next four years at least.

The only reason to lock him up now to a long-term deal is for Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow to posture to a suspicious fan base. "See, we really aren't the cheapskates you think we are. See, we can spend money on the big league product when we think it is justified." That won't fool the fans and is a really bad reason to make the deal.

As Scott alluded, Jose Altuve is a great story and a guy you naturally want to root for even if you aren't an Astros fan. He has that Spud Webb altitude-impaired quality going for him that lets the Walter Mitty in us think we could be him if only we were more talented.

If one believes in God or fate, Altuve represents the lesson of the Little Engine That Could. When he first arrived at the Venezuelan camp to try out, he was told to go home because he was too little. But he came back the next day and has been defying expectations ever since.

Were it not for the situation the Astros were in, Altuve would probably still be at AA today, batting .360 and listening to all the scouts and decision scientists telling him why he can't succeed in the majors. Were he not already in the majors, I think someone like Luhnow would have never given him a chance to succeed in Houston. Luhnow likes guys who were high draft choices with a long history of plaudits from scouts. He seems to like prospects with silver spoons.

Altuve represents the scruffy kid from the wrong side of town who was always being told he just wasn't right or just wasn't ready to fulfill his dreams. Instead, Altuve made it to Houston at age 21 and is the only recent farm product who appears to be playing at or above expectations since he arrived.

When Jason Castro was drafted, I read the reports and looked at his profile and declared him the next Gregg Zaun. While I hope he exceeds that, the numbers so far look similar.

When I look at Jose Altuve, I see the next Freddy Sanchez, although I think Altuve will have better career stats because Altuve came to the majors at age 21 and Sanchez didn't really start playing until he was 27.

Sanchez could hit for high average with little power and was a decent but not great second baseman in the field. Sanchez was also a three-time All-Star for the lowly Pirates and even got some MVP votes the year he won the batting crown with a .344 average in 2006.

Altuve has better speed than Sanchez and, I hope, will learn to exploit his size to work more walks once there are better weapons behind him in the lineup. After a couple of years, I think he'll pace himself better so he won't wear down at the end of the season.

Check the career track at age 22 on his player page and Altuve has some interesting names to compare him to. Rod Carew. Steve Sax. Pete Rose. But there are also names even diehard fans won't recognize. The world is open to Jose right now and he has already made a history of proving naysayers wrong. I hope that includes me.

But the Astros don't have to think about that right now. They should just be thankful they have one player who actually performs like an All-Star even if he is the antithesis of the sort of hitter the decision scientists appear to be interested in, judging by their acquisitions of Justin Maxwell and Chris Carter.

My unofficial nickname for Jose is "Mighty Mouse". But maybe he should have a new one: "The Accidental Astro". He's in Houston because he's too good to send down and too payroll-friendly to trade.

Last year, the franchise hyped former first-rounder Delino DeShields Jr. who is being groomed as their second baseman of the future. If DeShields develops as hoped, Altuve will become a valuable trade piece who would be hindered by the weight of a long-term contract.