Jose Altuve and the Point of No Return(?)

Ominous title, I know, but in all fairness: Jose Altuve sports a paltry .207/.267/.322 (65 wRC+) line. The former consensus 2nd-overall pick who hit .298 with a career-high 31 home runs last year may seem like an unlikely collapse candidate on the surface.

Unfortunately, the cracks began to show last year. For one, Altuve all but stopped running; when he did run, he fared poorly, succeeding in only six of 11 attempts. Moreover, his .298 average, while excellent, was a far cry from his best (.346) and post-breakout five-year peak from 2014 through 2018 (.331). These are the obvious signs of wear.

A lightly critical evaluation might have concluded Altuve would still be a valuable commodity in 2020. Average draft position (ADP) data confirms this suspicion; a post-pandemic-onset ADP of 40.12 (37th overall), per the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC), ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

Yet my work on launch angle tightness in December, while illuminating and fun to research, shone a spotlight on an interesting and very specific data point: Altuve.

A tight launch angle (small standard deviation) is not always good, and a loose launch angle (large) is not always bad, but by and large the overall trend holds. Perhaps a more effective way to use tightness is to compare it historically for each player. While Altuve never had elite tightness, it was consistent, and he was an elite hitter, and that’s all that mattered. So it alarmed me to see his launch angle loosen up in 2019:

2015: 26.4°
2016: 25.4°
2017: 26.7°
2018: 26.6°
2019: 30.4° (!)

Altuve had the 2nd-worst launch angle tightness last year (min. 350 batted ball events (BBE)) behind only Andrelton Simmons. Launch angle tightness is a fledgling area of study, but this development — going from having impressively consistent tightness to suddenly being among the league’s worst — seems, uh, not great. In fact, it’s what inspired my negatively charged bold prediction about Altuve this year (yes, I guess I can say I told you so).

So it’s certainly more alarming (albeit not to the prospective success of my bold prediction) to see how Altuve has fared through yesterday’s action:

2020: 34.1° (!!!)

I’m as quick as anyone to tell you anything can happen in a month. Forty innings or 100 plate appearances is hardly anything. I hardly even look at my fantasy league standings until May, and even you’d be hard-pressed to make me care or to panic. Above all, I have no idea when launch angle tightness even becomes reliable (“stabilizes”).

Fact of the matter is we’re nearing this sprint season’s halfway point, and Altuve has not only failed to improve but also worsened considerably, his launch angle ranking 4th-loosest among 186 hitters with 50+ BBE and dead last among 79 hitters with at 70+ BBE.

Which is why you’d have a hard time convincing me his issues with launch angle tightness were not a leading indicator of bad things to come. Last year, in tandem with his loosest launch angle, Altuve incurred career-worst rates of swinging strikes (9.0%), strikeouts (15.0%), line drives (17.6%), pop-ups (7.8%, per Statcast), and poor contact (66.1%, per Statcast). That’s a lot of bad happening all at once. And, like his launch angle tightness, he has worsened this year in every one of those metrics.

It’s unclear whether launch angle tightness is the chicken or the egg here — whether it’s causal or simply correlative — but it is clear something is wrong. It’s not clear to me what that might be, but I suspect it’s related (unsurprisingly) to bat angle — specifically bat angle consistency.

@SwingGraphs makes a pointed, if convenient, example of pitting World’s Best HitterTM Mike Trout against our very own Altuve here:

Bat angle, like launch angle tightness, being causal is open for debate, probably. His bat angle certainly seems like an issue, but I’m unsure if something else is causing Altuve’s bat angle to become inconsistent (persisting injury?) or if the bat angle itself is simply the genesis of his issues, a product of the aging curve.

If bat angle inconsistency is the genesis: is it fixable? If so, might we see the old Altuve again? I can’t speak to the former. As to the latter, it’s hardly auspicious for a hitter’s swing to fall out of whack as he enters his 30s, arguably his decline phase. Altuve’s speed has waned, and now he’s selling out for power. Is he selling out for power because his swing is off, or is his swing off because he’s selling out for power? Again, I can’t say.

To wit: José Ramírez, a speed-oriented contact specialist, never displayed power until 2017, when he broke out unexpectedly to pretty much everyone, including his staunchest proponent (me). When he sold out for power, he also suffered a prolonged BABIP-fueled slump (that’s the similar part! the slumpiness!). Unlike Altuve, however, Ramírez’s launch angle tightness wasn’t affected nearly as much (up from ~26° in 2016-17 to only ~27.5° in 2018-19), and he seemed to have all but resolved these issues last summer, including re-tightening his launch angle this year (back down to 26.1°). So it’s not quite the same and probably doesn’t inspire cautious optimism the way I thought it might before writing this paragraph. In fact it may have made things worse. Sorry!

Regardless, the red flag planted on Altuve that some may have ignored (or not realized existed) from 2019 is raised even higher now in 2020. I’m not the final authority on Altuve, but, yeah, I do suspect this could be the beginning of the end for the once-superstar. I think your sell-high window was this offseason and now it might be closed. Or, uh, if it wasn’t closed before I wrote this… welp.

(Also, I think it’s easy, in light of the scandalous offseason, to chalk up Altuve’s struggles to stealing signs and trash can-banging. Truthfully, as I hope I made clear here, I think there’s a whole lot more to it than that.)

Perhaps the biggest question in all of this is what Altuve can still be in his flawed state. That, like many other questions, is something I can’t adequately answer. If he can tighten things up, literally and figuratively, and at least return to 2019 levels, it seems reasonable to expect 2019-caliber production for the remainder of 2020. A 25 HR–5 SB–.290 AVG hitter in a regular 162-game season is still plenty valuable.

But it’s also middle-round fodder at best, a far cry from what you paid for Altuve pre-season. And that will invariably leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

* * *

Edit: I had messaged @SwingGraphs about Altuve’s vertical bat angle (VBA) last night while writing this but didn’t see his direct message on Twitter until after the post went live. But, for posterity, here are his measurements of Altuve’s VBA the last three years:

2018: 32.1°
2019: 28.9°
2020: 26.2°

Unfortunately, @SwingGraphs doesn’t have information prior to 2018, which would be helpful in establishing a trend of year-to-year consistency prior to 2019. But this is better than nothing, and I’d be willing to wager that his 2017 VBA looks a lot more like his 2018 VBA than it does his 2019-20 VBAs.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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1 year ago

This is just wishful thinking but I hope not cheating really fucked his swing up lmao

“Guessing is harder than knowing”

1 year ago
Reply to  jamesdakrn

Shockingly, it is as if every Astro is having a down season for some unknown reason that no one is talking about anymore, save for Brantley who wasn’t a part of the sign stealing scandal, and Reddick, which is just weird.

1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

Among interesting hitters on the 2017 HOU championship team:

Altuve and Springer are doing poorly
Correa is not doing as well, but not doing badly, per se
Bregman, Guli, and Reddick are doing just fine

Marwin Gonzalez had the one freaky good season in 2017, was mediocre before and since

McCann, Beltran, and Gattis are all old and out of baseball

1 year ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Correction. Correa is not even having a bad season. He’s almost dead on his career averages.

So “every Astro having a down season” is actually just Altuve and Springer, give or take how you feel about Marwin Gonzalez’ one year breakout.

1 year ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Not trying to engage because that is true, Correa is not having a bad season at all and he’s incredibly talented, but It’s also true that he had a career high wRC+ of 150 in 2017 compared to 125 this year, which is just under his career avg of 129 and likely dead on with his career average if you remove 2017.

1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending the Astros. They cheated. They got caught. Manfred’s refusal to punish the players (or the owner) was dereliction of duty.

I’m just doubting the efficacy of their scheme.

1 year ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

I don’t fault you for trying to examine the cheating scheme, but it seems to me that it’s nearly impossible to reach a mathematically precise answer. First, no matter what, you’re dealing with small sample sizes. Plus, it’s impossible to know the full, correct data (what games/at bats was the scheme used, what players used it and exactly when, etc.).

To me, it’s simpler than that. The answer to the question of whether the scheme helped is found in the actions of the Astros players. They were in the best position to know whether the cheating helped. They did it for at least 2 full seasons, over the course of thousands of at bats, at great risk to themselves if caught. In the face of those facts, I think the only reasonable conclusion is that the scheme helped in some material way, though the precise amount of the help is not ascertainable.

1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

People (players) do all sorts of unprovable random nonsense because they think it helps. Lucky bats. The same pair of socks every day during a hitting streak. I have ZERO doubt that hitters think having an idea what’s coming helps … that doesn’t actually mean that it does. There were a handful of articles on this very site attempting to determine if and how much of advantage may have been gained … largely all inconclusive IIRC.

1 year ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Would’ve been an interesting punishment to have the Astros pitchers Telegraph what pitch was coming to the opposition for two years.

The study is impossible, but we don’t need the study to tell us that batters get fooled all the time. Fastball at the knees freezing them, curveballs buckling them, changeups having them out in front. We put so much importance on pitch mix and keeping hitters off balance. I just don’t personally understand why that is that questioned here.