There will be no talk of trash cans here. I’ll make that promise up front. Besides, I don’t think I need to cite the scandal to point to Jose Altuve’s decline.
As usual, I’ll chop up the research using 5x5 hitting categories as a backdrop. The typical disclaimer applies: I’m a numbers-challenged fanalyst. I love fake sports. I hate numbers. I’m trying to get better all around, and while I’m learning I’m looking at trends, comparing players to their counterparts, and comparing to league averages. I’ll give it my best shot, and I’d love to hear any criticism in the comments. Because if I’m wrong on a player, I’d love to find that out before my next draft. Let’s help make each other better!
I’m looking at a few things here. Namely, line drive rate, BABIP, foot speed. Perhaps some others, but let’s hop in...
We’re a long way from the Altuve of old, the man who stole 56 bags in 2014. For reference, the Astros stole 67 bases as a team in 2019. It’s not the speed eroding, either. Many will cite injury from last year as the culprit. And I do remember Altuve having a hamstring injury last May. But Statcast tells me that he posted the highest average sprint speed of his career in 2019, at 28.6 ft/s. That ranked in the 85th percentile, and yet Altuve was only 6-of-11 on the basepaths. The speed wasn’t gone, but the efficiency sure was. Call it a small sample size if you like, but that’s problem, too. Say he has a quality 80% success rate but only attempts 15 steals in 2020...that’s 12 bags. Hardly noteworthy, and nowhere near what I think some people are banking on. However, for the sake of batting average, at least the speed is there to leg out some hits.
Altuve’s .303 BABIP last year was the worst mark of his career, and his ensuing .298 batting average was his worst since 2013. You could theoretically chalk it up to bad luck, but his xBA was .282, which suggests that he got a bit lucky on his actual mark. Furthermore, his expected batting average has fallen every year since 2016 (.324, .303, .296, .282). His launch angle has essentially done the same (10.5, 10.9, 9.1, 9.5, 8.8). He also posted a 17.6% line drive rate last year, the worst mark of his career. What’s worse, all those line drives have turned into ground balls instead of fly balls or homers, as the 49.9% ground ball rate was his highest mark since 2013. Altuve’s ground ball trend is a concern, too. He’s got the one outlier season where he posted a 41.6% ground ball rate and whopping 26.2% line drive rate, back in 2016. Since that time, here are his ground ball rates: 47.0%, 46.0%, and 49.9%.
On top of the launch angle/ground ball concerns, Altuve’s contact rate is definitely on a downward trend (89.8%, 86.1%, 84.9%, 83.6%, 80.8%). Last year’s mark was still about 4.5% better than league average. It’s not bad, but it’s not 10 and 11% better than league average like he used to be. To me, the whole picture supports last year’s .282 xBA. Altuve’s expected mark has been under .300 in each of the last two seasons. If I had to bet, I’d take the under on a .300 batting average in 2020. And I’d feel better saying .285 than I would .290 or greater.
The “well actually” crowd can say that Altuve sold out for power in 2020, citing the career-high 8.1% barrel rate. That would explain the contact rate, but to me it doesn’t explain the steady decline in contact rate over the last few years. And you know what? The 8.1% barrel rate isn’t elite, anyway. The MLB average is 6.3%, and Altuve’s career-high 8.1% mark in 2019 ranked 180th in the league. He was tied with Robinson Chirinos and Andrew Benintendi, for reference. Go nuts.
More damning is Altuve’s exit velocity, which ranked in the 12th percentile in the MLB. He was tied with luminaries such as Tucker Barnhart, Tyler White, and Lewis Brinson. Exit velocity is a super-huge deal if you’re a line drive hitter—see Whit Merrifield’s page, for example—but Altuve wasn’t hitting line drives last year. He’s banking on all those fly balls finding the Crawford Boxes. This is a dicey proposition in my opinion.
Altuve’s hard hit rate last year was in the 27th percentile. He ranked 284th in the MLB, one spot behind Enrique Hernandez and a spot ahead of Michael Chavis, Bryan Holaday, and Jose Trevino. Again, if he were an infielder that was slapping line drives, getting on base, and running wild on the basepaths, this might not worry me as much. But he hit far less line drives last year, and his running has really dwindled in the last two seasons.
Altuve set a career-high with a 50.0% pull rate in 2019. This was a huge departure from the two years prior, when he posted rates of 40.8% and 41.4%. Altuve also went to the opposite field only 17.3% of the time last year, the lowest rate of his career. Selling out for the Crawford Boxes paid dividends, as Altuve’s 31 homers were a career high—and basically represented a 30% rise in home runs from his previous career mark of 24.
The problem is that the pull rate wasn’t the only factor. The bouncy ball caveat applies, whether people want it to or not. And this is where I’m getting stuck. Less line drives and more grounders (probably) means a worse batting average. It also means the fly ball rate was pretty ordinary, at 32.5%. In fact, the high mark for Altuve was 35.2% in 2015. Since then, Altuve’s been pretty much the same dude with regard to fly balls: 32.2%, 32.7%, 30.0%, and 32.5%. The only big change (apart from the ball and the pull rate) was the rate of fly balls that became home runs. Scope out Altuve’s career HR/FB rates since 2015: 7.4%, 13.0%, 14.6%, 9.6%, and 23.3%. One of those is not like the other. And it took the bouncy ball to get there? For reference, Altuve ranked 274th in the MLB in average home run distance, at 396 feet. For a dude who stands in at 5-6, 165 pounds...I’m skittish.
Add it all up, and the 24-homer seasons seem more feasible to me than the 30+ homer season repeating.
Runs and RBIs (team context)
As a unit the Astros ranked third in runs scored last year, behind only the Yankees and the Twins. They ranked sixth in 2018. In 2017, they were first (the year they won the World Series). Point is, it’s a stellar unit and it’s only getting better. A full season of Yordan Alvarez, as well as the long awaited contributions of Kyle Tucker only make this lineup more formidable. There’s zero way to ding Altuve based on team context, trash cans or no trash cans. This is as fearsome a group of hitters as you’ll find. I’d say he pushes for 90 runs scored, but it will depend on his health. As for RBIs, the ATC projects 82, while Steamer says 93. Altuve’s career mark was 96 RBIs, but that came in a season where he mostly occupied the three-spot in the order. He’s likely the No. 2 hitter in Houston for 2020. Anyway, 75 to 85 RBIs seems safer to me. But given that anyone who formulates their own projections is smarter than me, let’s roll with the ATC and say he lands around the 85 or so range.
Here’s my rough sketch, based on the trends:
.280 BA, 90 runs, 24 homers, 85 RBIs, 10 stolen bases. And I feel like I’m being really generous on the steals, as he only attempted 11 last season. So what’s that worth to you?
I think it’s a useful line, but for my money I’d rather grab a youngster on the upswing (looking at you, Ozzie Albies). Let me know your thoughts, people!