If Jose Altuve were not playing baseball, but instead was selling popcorn at the stadium, having to stand on a box to reach over the counter, it wouldn’t be a jarring sight.
At 5-foot-6, 165 pounds (167cm, 74kg), the Houston Astros star doesn’t look like an elite ballplayer, much less the leading candidate as Most Valuable Player in the American League.
Our image of an MVP body type would be Mike Trout’s muscular Superman frame, or maybe Bryce Harper’s tall, lanky, every-sport build.
It may be time for an attitude adjustment.
Altuve has quietly evolved into one of the best all-around players of his generation, adding important elements to his game each of his six years in the majors.
This season, he has jumped from being a singles-hitting base-stealer who batted lead off, to the Astros’ run-producing, middle-of-the-order guy with a career-high 20 home runs and 84 runs batted in.
Impressively, he hasn’t lost any of those skills that made him such a great No. 1 hitter, either. For the third year in a row, the 26-year-old second baseman is on track to lead MLB in hits, and has even improved his on-base-percentage to a career high .422.
He leads all of baseball with a .361 batting average. No one has hit over .350 since 2010.
After topping the AL in stolen bases the last two seasons, Altuve is currently running second.
Last year, his fifth with the Astros, he earned his first Gold Glove as the best fielder at his position in the AL, a goal he announced to manager A.J. Hinch before the 2015 season began.
This year, according to the New York Times, he told Hinch he was going to stop swinging at so many balls off the plate, so he could get better pitches to hit. Altuve had been a notorious bad-ball hitter, who didn't mind reaching awkwardly to punch a base hit. It was a successful approach, but Altuve thought he could do better.
Hinch has seen the strategy result in more extra-base hits.
“When he strengthened his strike-zone judgment, he started producing at an all-time high,” said the manager.
Altuve’s step-by-step, self-improvement plan has earned him some well-deserved attention with the sport’s stat crunchers, writers and broadcasters. The consensus is that Altuve and Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox are the MVP favourites with about one month to go in the season.
On the new gold standard of statistical charts — Wins Above Replacement (WAR) — Altuve (7.30) trails only Trout (7.86) among the 1,000-plus who play games each season.
Best of all for Altuve, he has emerged as one of the few survivors from Houston’s grand, experimental tank job. The Astros are now contenders. But when they were routinely losing 100 games per year in the early part of the decade, seemingly on purpose, to evaluate young talent, stockpile prospects and earn high draft picks, Altuve had to endure the losing while proving himself as a keeper.
His value was never in doubt. Two years ago, when the Astros “improved” to 92 losses, general manager Jeff Luhnow identified his second baseman as “the heart of the team ... someone who gets the most out of his abilities”.
Obviously, Altuve never saw his small stature as an impediment to playing the game the way the biggest stars of the game play it. In doing so, he is making the rest of us see it that way, too.
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