Jose Altuve's Case as MLB's Most Underrated Infielder

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Jose Altuve's Case as MLB's Most Underrated Infielder
Tony Gutierrez/AP Images

I'm thinking of a ballplayer who might be a little underrated. You know, a guy whom fans come up short in appreciating. If only they knew what he could do, coming to properly appreciate him would take only a small amount of effort.

Are you picking up the language here? Yeah, that's how you know we're going to talk about Jose Altuve, who right now might be the single most underrated infielder in the game. It's a notion that's no tall tale.

Alright, fine. I'll stop. At least as long as we're being serious, and that starts now.

There's something we've known for a while about the Houston Astros second baseman and something we're finding out now.

The thing we've known for a while: Altuve's not a big guy. He measures just 5'6", or, if you prefer, a single "Altuve." With only modest career numbers going for him, that was probably his main claim to fame before 2014.

But not anymore, which is owed to the thing we know about Altuve now: He's become really, really good.

Altuve entered Thursday's action with league-leading numbers in some key categories. At .339, he was leading the American League in batting average. With 41, he was leading the AL in stolen bases. With 127, he was leading all of MLB in hits.

Further, MLB Public Relations noted last Friday that it's been a long time since we've seen a first-half performance like Altuve's:

With so many cool numbers, it's no wonder Altuve made his second American League All-Star team. Yeah, that kind of puts a dent in the argument that he's underrated. It's not easy to call a guy underrated when he's an All-Star, because that's typically not how these things work.

We can, however, gripe about Altuve not being selected to start the All-Star Game. And gripe hard, at that.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

I'll let Amanda Rykoff, Houston's social media manager, lead the charge:

This is on the fans, of course. They're the ones who do the voting, and most of them gravitated toward Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano.

That more fans didn't go for Altuve likely comes down to two explanations:

  1. He plays for the Houston Astros, who are mired in an ongoing rut of suckitude (three straight 100-loss seasons, in last place again this year).
  2. People must not have understood just how good Altuve has been, or they just don't believe it.

Some of you will be happy to hear that the latter point is not a segue into a chat about Wins Above Replacement. Because if you go by WAR, FanGraphs says that the biggest All-Star starter snubs among infielders were Ian Kinsler (3.7 WAR) and Todd Frazier (3.5 WAR), not Altuve. As such, it can be argued that either of them is baseball's most underrated infielder.

But what those two have on Altuve is high defensive ratings, which we can probably all agree shouldn't be taken as gospel. When it comes to offensive production, something we have a much better idea of how to measure, neither is on Altuve's level.

In fact, few infielders are.

We can tell as much by using FanGraphs' "Offense" statistic, which combines a player's hitting and baserunning value to arrive at his total offensive value as measured by runs above average.

With the minimum set at 300 plate appearances, the Offense leaderboard for infielders looked like this on Thursday:

The Best Offensive Infielders of 2014
Player Pos G PA Off
Troy Tulowitzki SS 86 354 30.4
Paul Goldschmidt 1B 92 407 30.3
Edwin Encarnacion 1B 88 375 27.5
Freddie Freeman 1B 91 404 21.4
Jose Abreu 1B 78 333 20.6
Anthony Rizzo 1B 89 388 19.9
Miguel Cabrera 1B 86 370 19.0
Jose Altuve 2B 90 405 18.9

FanGraphs

That'll do for a definitive list of the best offensive infielders out there. And in it, you see this: the biggest and baddest shortstop on the planet, six hulking first basemen and one pint-sized second baseman.

One of those things is clearly not like the others. And if it seems unbelievable that Altuve could be that good, hey, offense is really all about getting on base and getting around the bases. A guy who can hit .340 and get around the bases with speed can be just as good at those things as any slugger.

If you're a fan who didn't go for Altuve in the voting because you weren't impressed enough by his numbers, well, there you go. If you didn't go for Altuve because you weren't buying that he's really improved as much as it looks, well, you can know this:

He really has, man.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

As we noted before, Altuve's career before 2014 wasn't all that impressive. Not taken as a whole, anyway, as he was just a .285 hitter with a below-average .700 OPS. 

There was one time when Altuve did pass for a pretty good player, though, and that was in his All-Star first half in 2012, when he hit .303 with a .783 OPS. That didn't last, as he hit just .274 with a .687 OPS in the second half. He followed that up with a par-for-the-course .283 average and .678 OPS in 2013.

Why should we take it as a given that Altuve has actually changed? How do we know he's not about to plummet back toward mediocrity? 

Here's why (via FanGraphs):

A Tale of Two Jose Altuve First Halves
Split BB/PA K/PA BABIP Line-Drive%
1st Half, 2012 5.0 13.2 .338 17.6
1st Half, 2014 5.7 6.7 .357 22.9

FanGraphs

By comparing Altuve's walk and strikeout rates, you can see that he's putting together better at-bats and putting a lot more balls in play now than he was in 2012. Somewhat quietly, he's become the hardest guy in MLB to strike out. Even more so than Victor Martinez, which is saying something.

And while the .338 average Altuve had on balls in play (BABIP) in 2012 was impressive, it was always going to be hard to maintain with that modest line-drive rate. With his line-drive rate up significantly this summer, what is an even better .357 BABIP looks considerably less fluky.

In other words: Altuve is not the same player he was in the first half of 2012. His success then was driven largely by luck. Now, his success is driven more by skill. 

Which was the whole idea, as far as Astros hitting coach John Mallee and assistant hitting coach Ralph Dickenson were concerned. As Mallee recently told MLB.com's Brian McTaggart:

We basically got rid of [Altuve's] early stride and stayed in motion, so now when he recognizes pitches, he recognizes it during his stride as opposed to when his foot is on the ground. His stride timing became better and his overall timing became better, and that's why he's hitting more pitches than he was in the past. He's hitting the ball hard, too, because he's staying in motion.

Sometimes numbers like the ones Altuve has been putting up can happen by accident. But his aren't. His numbers are the product of an improved approach, and that improved approach was by design.

There's your case for Altuve as the most underrated infielder in the game. His high batting average and collection of hits and steals say it's a travesty that he wasn't voted in as the AL's starting second baseman, and he's actually been more productive than even his average, hits and steals would have everyone believe. And while it all might look fluky, it's not.

Altuve's kind of a big deal now.

Figuratively speaking, anyway.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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