Jose Altuve and Expectations of Regression

What will the fantasy baseball market look like for Jose Altuve in 2015? The Houston Astros’ second baseman, as a top-five commodity overall who wasn’t, on average, drafted as a top-five player at his position and barely within the top 100, according to Fantasy Pros’ ADP data, certainly helped some fantasy baseball players win this year. What did Zach Sanders know that all his haters in the comments didn’t?! It’s safe to say that Altuve has changed perception and will cost more next season.

There’ll also be folks who’ll avoid and/or recommend to avoid him because of the scary regression monster. Any player who hits .341 thanks to a .360 BABIP and steals 56 bases in 65 attempts after he finished his previous two seasons nowhere near those marks is due to fall hard, the reasoning might basically go. It’s a pretty simple and safe approach, since regression to mean performance is the smart bet.

But how much will his future performance actually regress? Altuve did some potentially significant things differently in 2014. It seems pretty plausible that he’s begun to establish an entirely new mean performance level. And if that’s true, then there might still be room to profit on a purchase of Altuve next year.

I don’t have to delve too deeply into what those significant things are. That’s possible because of the typically awesome work of some great FanGraphs writers. Mike Petriello wrote, midway through the season, on the advances Altuve was in the midst of displaying. Jeff Sullivan shed some light on the type of strike zone Altuve has dealt with regularly and in particular this season. August Fagerstrom recapped how Altuve arrived at this great campaign and suggested that this may not be the last of the player’s batting titles. I’m incredibly thankful for their work – not just because I didn’t have to do it, although that doesn’t hurt, but because their observations are so extensive and they discovered some things that I’d have surely missed.

I might have dwelled on a few things, otherwise. Such frequent contact outside the strike zone, for instance, can turn me off. Look at this! That’s pretty fun. Anyway, such a high O-Contact% isn’t certain death, of course. Plenty of good hitters do it. I’m swayed to think that Altuve makes it work as well. Fears about adjustments by the opposition always feed into the prediction of regression, but he’s already proven to be plenty capable of making them as well.

Nitpickers might try to find some something in the speedster’s batted-ball data. Altuve’s ground-ball rate dipped a bit in each of the last couple of years. That could mean fewer infield hits! But he’s traded some of them for line drives as well as fly balls, so it’s not as if his chances to succeed are likely to nosedive. This might actually be a positive development in terms of his swing plane. And one might look at his 9.9% IFFB% and wonder, pop-up problem? He hit pop-ups less than 3% of the time – it’s far from being a problem yet.

Altuve seemed to be unusually successful on stolen-base attempts (86.2%). That’s one area in which I find definite fault. Prior to this past season, he made it on only 73.5% (75 of 102) of his attempts in the major leagues. He wasn’t exceedingly efficient in the minors, either. I thought it was fair to wonder, coming into this season, whether Houston would begin to put the shackles on him, maybe just a little. That thought is out the window, at least for 2015, though. It’s pretty damn difficult to repeat that kind of success rate, granted, but he’s not exactly past his prime in terms of speed. The opportunities are tied to the batting average, of course. Let’s say 55 opportunities next season, kind of a middle ground between 2014 and his two previous seasons. At 80% successful, he steals 44; at 75%, 41. Each total is still really good!

It might be surprising that Altuve didn’t score more runs (85). He spent half of his season as the leadoff hitter, and most of the rest of it as the No. 2 man. The Astros weren’t very good, again, but they were a little better, at least, and they might be again next year. There isn’t much else to say because some of this isn’t within his control. The rate of success here, and with his career-high RBI total (59), is, like the steals, strongly tied to his AVG. How much do you believe?

August sort of alluded to a comp, at least in terms of fantasy results, in his piece that I think is really intriguing and pretty fair: Ichiro Suzuki, in his prime. Altuve is a RHB and therefore loses a hair more often than a LHB like Ichiro did. Altuve is also younger than Ichiro was when he arrived in the States and should have several good speed years ahead of him. Altuve is also a 2B, not an OF.

And so the game is on for this particular player. There’ll be some focus on how good he actually is. There’ll be some speculation as to how good our rival fantasy leaguers believe that he is. And then there’ll be drafts and, especially, auctions, in which you’ll find out where you fall on that mish-mash of spectrums in your league.

Frankly, I was looking for reasons to be my usual, contrarian self, who knows it’s just generally safer to bet on regression. Which is boring, really. It’s not nearly as easy as I thought it’d be to pick apart Altuve’s 2014 results, though. I’m now convinced that there may not be the kind of sharp decline some will predict. I think that his 2015 Steamer projection (.300/.342/.408, 36 stolen bases) might be conservative. A lot of things went right, but he seems to have put himself in position to make a lot of things go right pretty often. Thanks to the FG writers who are smarter than me and wrote so much about him this year for helping me to see that.

There’ll be some residual love for Altuve, obviously. I don’t anticipate much of a break in casual, public-type leagues, for example. In other leagues, there’ll have to be some regression hounds who conspire to depress Altuve’s 2015 stock, though, right? If they do that enough, then I could own him next season. And I didn’t expect to see him that way.

Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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stop writing about players I want!
you guys are killing me!
btw, I thought u were anti-altuvian (as opposed to antediluvian)…..on a SATB within the last month (?) I thought, based on your comment and tone, that u didn’t like Jose……