When you write about the Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, it's customary to bone up on synonyms for "short:" diminutive, small-statured, pint-sized.
You know what, though? Forget that.
Yes, Altuve is listed at 5'6"—and that might be in his cleats. But there has been nothing little about his production this season.
In fact, with 49 games left on the schedule, the American League MVP Award is Altuve's to lose.
After going 4-for-4 in a 7-5 win over the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, he leads MLB in hits (159) and batting average (.361). He's among the game's top 10 defensive second basemen. He's showing increased plate discipline and getting on base more often, having already drawn a career-high 48 walks. And the 26-year-old has added a surprising infusion of power, posting career highs in home runs (19) and slugging percentage (.570).
Add his 26 stolen bases, and Altuve has a decent shot at becoming baseball's first 30-30 player since 2012.
"There simply is no weakness in Altuve's game," opined MLB.com's Richard Justice, "and in a lineup that has some holes, he has at times seemed to be the only guy keeping the Astros in shouting distance of a second straight postseason berth."
Yet thanks in large part to Altuve's production, the 'Stros sit above .500 at 58-55, three games off the wild-card pace.
If Houston returns to the postseason, it'd boost Altuve's MVP chances since voters frequently take that into consideration when handing out individual honors.
But even if the Astros stay home come late October, there's no denying Altuve's across-the-stat-sheet brilliance. As Tyler Kepner of the New York Times noted, "The last player to finish the season as the A.L. leader in average, hits, on-base percentage, steals and total bases was Ty Cobb in 1917."
Watch your back, Ty—Altuve currently ranks first or second in each of those categories.
If you go by FanGraphs' wins above replacement, Altuve's mark of 5.9 trails only Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout (6.7) and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (6.2). Donaldson won the AL MVP last year and Trout was the runner-up.
But if Altuve could be dinged for the Astros possibly missing the playoffs, surely Trout will be hurt by the Angels' abysmal season.
Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz is also in the mix, as he leads MLB with a 1.013 OPS in his farewell season. Sentimentality aside, though, Ortiz's lack of a defensive position pushes him to the edge of the conversation.
Donaldson is perhaps Altuve's stiffest competition, and if the Jays make the playoffs, he could become the favorite. Since 1995, however, there have been just three back-to-back (or better) MVP winners in either league: the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds (2001-04), the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols (2008-09) and the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera (2012-13).
That's not to say it won't happen again. But it suggests voters are more apt to select a fresh winner. If we stack up the stats, it's impossible to ignore Altuve's case:
|AL MVP Front-Runners|
|Jose Altuve (HOU)||.361||.998||19||26|
|Josh Donaldson (TOR)||.296||.976||27||6|
|Mike Trout (LAA)||.312||.973||21||17|
The power numbers jump out compared to Altuve's career OPS (.790) and previous single-season home run high (15), but they haven't come at the expense of his other strengths, as Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller noted on July 19:
Altuve has not hit one homer when behind in the count this season, but that’s not a bad thing given his skill set...Altuve is, first and foremost, a hitter who makes a ton of contact and gets on base with the best of them. He’s naturally going to default to that approach when he’s behind in the count. The change we’ve seen from him this year is an increased ability to exploit plus counts to the utmost while not giving up any of his contact skills.
"He won the batting title two years ago, and he came in even hungrier the next year," Astros infielder and fellow Venezuelan Marwin Gonzalez said of his teammate and countryman, per Kepner. "That's what people don’t know about him. Whatever he ends the season with this year, he's going to want more next year and he's going to work even harder. It's never enough for him."
If he becomes the first Astro to claim an MVP trophy since Jeff Bagwell in 1994, that'll be tough to top.
Altuve isn't the Astros' only star. His keystone combo partner, shortstop and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, is one of the game's most exciting young talents.
Right now, though, Altuve isn't merely the best player in Houston; he's looking like the best all-around player in baseball.
And that's no small feat.