Jose Altuve and the Point of No Return(?) by Alex Chamberlain August 25, 2020 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: Huge surprise in the data. Higher levels of HBA produce better performance on low/away. What? ..Also, VBA + HBA is extremely predictive of perf. in that zone. Who has the highest VBA/HBA combo in that zone?.. …the best hitter on the planet ..Best "hardware", best "software" pic.twitter.com/hou9g59Pq1 — SwingGraphs (@SwingGraphs) April 15, 2020 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.