Jose Altuve is getting a lot of publicity these days for the .361 batting average that leads Major League Baseball, putting him on track to pace the American League in hits for the third year in a row. That's fine, to a certain extent; Altuve is a legitimate AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate, and he (with all due respect to Carlos Correa) has been indisputably Houston's best player.
But to focus on that best-in-baseball batting average doesn't fully do Altuve justice, because "getting hits" isn't really the story with him this year, and batting average fails to give sufficient credit for the quality of those hits. That's the real story -- how, in his sixth season, a player who will forever be described by his (lack of) height has become baseball's fourth-best slugger. Altuve is basically having the same season asMike Trout, right down to the No. 27 on his back for an AL West team.
We dug into this here at MLB.com back in May, tracing Altuve's evolution from "decent player on a rebuilding Astros team" to "improving player on an improving team" to "superstar on a contender," and at the time, the explanation seemed relatively simple: The famously free-swinging Altuve had largely stopped swinging at bad pitches, a goal he'd specifically identified entering the season. His walk rate has doubled, his chase rate has dropped and his exit velocity has jumped from 86.1 mph to 89 mph. It's hard to come up with a better recipe for hitting improvement.
Three months later, that's still true, but we've learned there's more to it. Altuve has hit fewer grounders, dropping from 47 percent of his batted balls to 42 percent, a career low -- and well below the 53 percent it was in 2012. But he's also dropped his percentage of fly balls, down from 35 percent to 31 percent. Instead, Altuve has decided to just hit screaming liners -- the kind of balls with the highest probability of becoming extra base hits.
Take a look at Altuve's launch angle chart from last year to this year. You can see his batted balls in 2015 were largely around 0 degrees (right back at the pitcher's release point) and 20 degrees, with something of a dip in the middle.
It's not that Altuve didn't have a great season last year, of course, because he did. It's just that when he hits the ball between 10 and 20 degrees, fantastic things happen -- he's averaging .747 on the 146 balls he's put in play in that range over the past two years, with a slugging percentage of 1.014. As you can see, this year, that gap has been filled in. Altuve is still finding plenty of success there, he's just peppering more balls there overall, up to 17.5 percent of his batted balls from 11.5 percent. He's hitting more line drives, is the point, with baseball's second-highest increase in line-drive percentage from last season to this season.
And, of course, there's that exit velocity increase. Let's expand the zone to include between 10 degrees and 30 degrees, and only balls hit over 100 mph. Last year, 5.8 percent of Altuve's batted balls fit that criteria; this year, that's doubled to 11.3 percent, and that's a big deal, because the results are obscene when he does that -- he's hit .844 this year on such batted balls.
"I try to go to home plate with a purpose, with a plan, and not get out of it," Altuve told MLB.com's Richard Justice earlier this year. "I'm putting myself in good hitting counts and getting good pitches to hit."
Altuve certainly is. When he's ahead in the count, he is hitting a ludicrous .458/.586/.764, well above the Major League average of .302/.472/.526 in those situations, and that's no accident. Like all hitters, Altuve is so much better when swinging at pitches in the zone (.410 this year, with a 91.4 mph exit velocity) than outside it (.291, 84.5 mph), and as you'd expect, he sees more pitches in the zone (41 percent) when he's ahead in the count than when he's behind (27 percent).
"Lay off the bad pitches so you can swing at better pitches" sure seems like a simple answer. Perhaps it is; this isn't rocket science. It's just extremely difficult to put into practice, as countless hitters have shown. Altuve has done that and then some.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.