All right – hands up if you actually knew who José Altuve was before the 2014 season began.
Only some of you? Well, that’s entirely understandable (and actually sort of impressive). After all, Altuve plays for the Houston Astros, a franchise so bland that most people don’t even remember that Bud Selig (in his infinite wisdom) moved them to the American League two years ago. The Astros have averaged 104 losses per season since 2011, the year that Altuve first made it to the show; the fact that they improved by 19 wins in 2014 and still lost 92 games pretty much says it all about the depth of the hole that the ‘Stros have been trying to climb out of.
But if they ever somehow manage to extricate themselves from the mess left by former owner Drayton McLane, José Altuve will be the one leading them to daylight.
Playing for a lousy baseball team in a football-centric city is certainly not the textbook way to make your major league mark, which is why many fans are still unaware that Altuve is the most exciting young player in the American League not named Mike Trout – even though the 24-year-old second baseman hit a MLB-best .341 this past season, becoming the first Astros player to ever win a batting crown, and only the third player in the past two decades to win one at the age of 24 or younger. (Alex Rodriguez in 1996 and Joe Mauer in 2006 were the others.)
The Venezuelan native also led the majors in hits in 2014 with 225, while finishing in the MLB top ten in 11 other offensive categories, including stolen bases (an AL-leading 56), doubles (47, second in the AL and third overall), runs created (114, sixth in the AL and eighth overall) and offensive WAR (6.6, tied for third-best in the AL and fourth overall).
These are star-level numbers, indeed, but Altuve’s star has yet to radiate far beyond Minute Maid Park. Then again, it’s easy to fly under the radar when you’re listed at 5’6,” and may actually stand a few inches shorter. That’s right, folks – Altuve is the shortest everyday player in MLB since Freddie “The Flea” Patek (who was variously listed at 5’4″ and 5’5″) started 138 games at shortstop for the AL West-winning Kansas City Royals of 1978. As with Patek, who made the AL All-Star squad three times during his 14-year career, Altuve’s game is all about contact and speed, though he’s already a much better hitter than Patek ever was. (And no one ever devised a calculator to determine how many “Pateks” a home run ball traveled.)
In fact, in just a few short (sorry!) years in the bigs, Altuve already appears to have become one of the best hitters in the game. Despite being the kind of player who will enthusiastically swing at anything in his ZIP code (a trait which, combined with his diminutive stature, occasionally produces amusing highlight clips like this one) and his charming admission that he sometimes lets his teammates pick which bat he’ll hit with, Altuve struck out in only 7.5 percent of his 2014 plate appearances; with the exception of Victor Martinez, he was the most difficult batter in the majors to whiff. And, as Altuve’s meager 36 walks attest, it’s not just that he’s using his fun-size strike zone to his advantage; bat met ball on a whopping 91 percent of the times he swung this season.
Such innate peskiness befits someone who, at first glance, looks like the annoying neighborhood squirt who’s playing ball with the big kids. And he’s a nuisance on the bases, too; Altuve was caught stealing only nine times all season, and had a streak of four consecutive multi-steal games in June. The last player before him to accomplish the latter feat? Ray Chapman, all the way back in 1917.
Altuve’s cleats from those four games now reside in Cooperstown; whether or not he himself will eventually be enshrined there remains to be seen. So far, he’s been slightly subpar in the field (he’s got good hands, but his squat build puts him at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of range); he has yet to hit more than seven home runs in a season, and his .341 batting average (and .360 average on balls in play, a.k.a. BABIP) isn’t the sort of number that you see even the best players reproducing on a regular basis. Then again, the fact that he managed to cut his strikeout rate from 12.7 percent in 2013 to 7.5 this year might indicate he’s a hitting machine that’s just starting to get locked in. Turned away from his initial tryout with the Astros for being too short, Altuve has had to work exceptionally hard to prove that he belongs in the bigs – and now that he’s made it, don’t expect his work ethic to slacken…even if the profile of his seldom-used Twitter account does simply say that “I love music and sleep.”
Do expect, however, that the man known to his teammates as “Gigante” will continue to add a considerable degree of fun and excitement to whatever game he’s playing in. Altuve won the AL Silver Slugger Award for second basemen in 2014, the first time since 2009 that someone has beaten out Robinson Cano for it; another season like this one, and he just might loosen Cano’s grip on second base in the All-Star voting, as well. And if the Astros ever start winning, Altuve may wind up much higher in the MVP balloting than his 13th-place finish this year.
Oh yeah – did we mention that the little dude can dance? That’s our kind of MVP.
Dan Epstein’s latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He’s on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras