For 2014 Astros, it’s Altuve or bust at second base


by Dan Peschong

Unless Jeff Luhnow springs another spring training surprise as he did with the Jed Lowrie trade last year – the Astros’ second baseman in 2014 will be Jose Altuve. Whether you think that is a good thing or bad thing may well depend on whether the real Jose Altuve played in 2012 or 2013.

Look Back

Though Jake Elmore, Marwin Gonzalez and Jimmy Paredes all played a few games at second base in 2013 – there was no doubt that the position belonged to Altuve who started 145 games there along with a handful of games at DH.

If this were the 1960s looking at the old school stats of importance – 2013 would have looked pretty solid for Altuve, especially for a 2nd baseman in the middle of an anemic lineup. Of all the players who had more than a cup of coffee with the big team – only L.J. Hoes nudged out Jose’s .283 BA. He was tied for the team lead in runs scored at 64, third in RBIs, led the team in stolen bases – hey – everything was good – right?

But when you look a little deeper at more modern stats and compare him against his 2nd base peers in the American League – he had a very inefficient offensive season in 2013. For the most important Moneyball stat – on base percentage – he was a truly pitiful .316 driven by his inability (lack of interest?) in drawing walks. His walk rate was under 5%, and he would go through BB droughts – early in the season going through one 18 game stretch without a walk and later on putting up a truly phenomenal 30 game stretch without a freebie. The guy is 5′-5″ tall and he still does not make the pitchers pitch to his tiny zone.

So, compared against the other nine 2Bs in the AL who are “qualifiers” (more than 3.1 plate appearances / game) – he is 8th in OBP. His OPS – a critical stat for showing hitting prowess – was last vs. those nine. He’s ninth in RBIs, 7th in runs.

In the modern stat WAR (wins against replacement) he rates a 1.0. We can debate whether we believe WAR stats – but basically this signals he was worth only 1 more win vs. whoever you might bring up from the minors. In general – All-Stars like Cano and Pedroia put up WARs in the 6 to 8 range…. reserves put up a 1.0.

Now the Astros really did not have a better option last year – but they sure need more production out of this position going forward.

Most Likely Starter

If you look at the current 40 man roster – the only three players you would “trust” to play middle infield are Altuve, Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar — and trust is a stretch for the current starting SS (but that is a post for another day).

So, as constituted – Jose Altuve is the starting 2B heading into 2014.  The hope is he can re-touch on the All-Star (OK, All-Star by default) numbers he put up in 2012. The .740 OPS was good, the .340 OBP was livable, the 80 runs scored was solid and he had no ABs in the third spot in the lineup where he was a fish out of water in 2013.

The other big difference between his 2012 and 2013 stats is that he lost a lot of ground against left handed pitchers – moving from an outstanding .911 OPS to a pedestrian .733 OPS against pitchers of the contrarian persuasion.

Most Likely Backup

As things sit right now – the most likely backup will come from Marwin Gonzalez (only backup middle infielder on the 40 man roster) or one of two veteran non-roster invitees Gregorio Petit and Cesar Izturis. Frankly none of the three could hit the ground if thrown from the team plane – but if the choice was from those three I would choose Marwin, who at least has youth on his side.

The other two non roster invitees in camp will be 19 year old Carlos Correa, who probably could outplay Altuve tomorrow but is likely going to be at AA this season and 21 year old Ronald Torryes, who the Astros picked up from the Cubs and has not played above AA.

One other possibility would be the Astros picking up a veteran / real SS and making Villar the swing sub.

Coming Attractions

The AA and AAA contingent of middle infielders from 2013 is not very inspiring – filled with guys who are gone (Paredes, Elmore) or too old (Jose Martinez & Andrew Simunic) or unspecial (Ruben Sosa) and therefore not considered the next big 2B thing.

Perhaps the 2B of the future is one of two losers in the SS chase to wunderkind Correa. I’m thinking specifically of OBP specialists Nolan Fontana and Joe Sclafani.

Sclafani had stops at A and A+ ball in 2013. His 94 runs scored in 111 games fueled by getting on base more than 40% of the time really stand out along with having more walks than strikeouts.

For Fontana – a year after posting an insane .465 OBP despite a poor .225 BA he moved up to A+ Lancaster and scored 88 runs in 104 games and posted a .415 OBP and a .814 OPS. He also walked (102) more times than he K’d (100).

Those are my thoughts on the Astros 2B situation – how do you see it – what do you agree with – what do you think I missed?

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19 comments on “For 2014 Astros, it’s Altuve or bust at second base

  1. It’s interesting to look at his splits.
    Swung at 1st pitch: 247 PA .269 .279 .325 1 HR 13 GDP BAbip .287
    Took 1st pitch: 425 PA .291 .337 .385 4 HR 11 GDP BAbip .335

    We’re likely at a crossroads for Altuve. He can either be more selective at the plate or become Cesar Izturis. Actually, that might not be fair to Izturis who has always been a better defender and can play more positions. Luckily, Altuve has youth on his side.

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    • That is a great stat devin. I think it points out that the pitchers expect him to swing early in the count and not be selective – so they throw “their” pitch on the first pitch and when he swings at it – very little good happens.
      I doubt he’ll ever be that much less agressive – but it looks like if he would just take the first pitches he would be in better shape.
      Thanks for throwing that out there…..

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  2. If I remember correctly, we had this same concern about Altuve before last year’s spring training with fans and announcers talking about how the coaching staff had worked with Altuve to change his batting plan, if he had one. The result was even worse. It may be interesting to see if he is better at plate discipline after not playing winter ball where he was batting against inferior pitching and was able to swing at anything and get good wood on the ball. Hopefully winter ball ingrained bad plate habits and it won’t be so much this year. I doubt it. You have to be coachable to change.

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    • There are a few things that might give us some hope here:
      – He is young
      – He may do better if not asked to bat 3rd like he was asked to for significant time last season
      – He may do better if he has a better hitter(s) behind him – such as Springer.
      – He may do better if he is not trying to do too much because there are other hitters in the line up.
      He had made a little progress on this in 2012 – but totally backslid in 2013.

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    • To be honest, everyone told Altuve that his team would be much better and it started horribly and got worse. Then he lost his grandmother, got run over by an unmanned flying right fielder and finished 0-14. Pardon me if he doesn’t have any patience or help. He was still better than almost any player on that team.
      I’m just as sure he is going to be thrilled with a stadium full of Yankee fans and facing Tanaka, while George Springer is still in Kissimmee doing nothing on opening night, in order for the team to save some money in 2019. He’s gotta feel like a fireman running into a burning building with a garden hose, while the fire captain gives an interview to the press about how good things are gonna be in a couple of years.
      As a fan losing sucks. As a player, losing sucks double.

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      • I think your point is well taken that he may have been trying to do too much for a good chunk of the season and then may have just plain run out of gas (emotionally) down the stretch.
        Man – if Springer is not with the big club…. oh well – come back in about a week when I preview the OF for more on that.

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  3. Plate discipline is key for Altuve. I’m sure this has been pointed out to him ad nauseum. Now it’s just up to him to put it in practice.

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  4. Devin’s stat above shows what can happen with just a little patience. I wish I could say that it will sink in – if not he may be somewhere else – lower in the lineup or playing elsewhere.

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  5. Altuve confounds me a bit. The guy has a lifetime .386 OBP in minor league ball. His .340 OBP in 2012 seemed to hint at good things to come. But putting him in the third slot was the worst thing Bo Porter could have done to him. Leading off, his OBP was .376, batting second, .312, and third, .264. And from the leadoff slot, he hit .326 with a .774 OPS. That does not necessarily tell me that he should be the lead off guy, but it does tell me that he was misused. He had no business batting third. He can get on base. Someone simply needs to tell him that that is his role, whether it be hitting 1st, 2nd or 7th. If he takes pitches, the OBP, the batting average, .OPS and everything else will come.

    Defensively, he got better in 2012. Hopefully as he knows pitchers and hitters better, he’ll improve more.

    And last, while he does steal bases, he’s not a good base stealer. This I also hold Bo Weaver, I mean Porter, somewhat accountable for. Porter should better control who is running and when. And to a certain extent, young guys like Altuve can become better base stealers, if they have a manager or coach that knows anything about that part of the game. When do we get to talk about the manager?

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    • Lot’s of good meat there daveb – I’m sure there will be a Porter – thumbs up / thumbs down column pop up at some point.
      Yes, there was never a reason to put Altuve in the 3rd spot – even when hitting well he has never had third spot characteristics.

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  6. Boy, this is a tough crowd. First he came up with JD, and Parades. Those two have been a flame out so far. I don’t see a big difference in his stats from 2012 to 2013. Could he improve, well of course, but on a decent team, he would be batting at the bottom of the order, and not trying to steal every time he gets on base – knowing the next guy may get a single, but almost never two singles in a row. Will he ever be a true All-Star – probably not but he is a dependable 2nd baseman and a decent bat in the line-up. Until he gets a good cast around him, he will be what he is or regress slightly.

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    • Yes, he is not a bust like Paredes or JDM, but he regressed last season. I think he can be a lot better just from having a better lineup around him – but if he does not improve that .316 OBP – he needs to bat towards the bottom / not the top of the lineup.

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    • I’m not anti-Altuve. I think a little protection and stability in the lineup would benefit him greatly. It will be interesting to see what Porter tries in ST. If Fowler can put up a .350+ OBP you almost have to slot him leadoff to try to maximize base runners. If Villar is going to be our SS I’d like to see him hitting 2nd in the spring. If he doesn’t collect 25 bunt hits in 2014 I’ll be disappointed. The question, then, is what to do with Altuve? My guess is Porter will have 162 different lineups in 2014 and ten different players will hit third.

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    • I’m far from giving up on Altuve. I think he’s been mismanaged. I want to see the guy that had some plate discipline in the minors. But if he does not improve, I also think we’ll have Sclafani or Fontana available before long to play second. I lean towards Sclafani.

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  7. Let’s hope since he didn’t play winter ball this off season, he will be
    rested and ready to go. I was alarmed last year, at his poor plate
    discipline. I understand these young kids usually have a sophomore
    slump, so I’m hoping that is behind him. I liked the signing of Ceser
    Isturiz, the guy is a WEALTH of knowledge to offer Altuve AND Villar.
    As for Tanaka……I was surprised Crane offered him “over $100 million”.

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    • Becky, if they put a rested Altuve out there, he shows a little coachability, he sees better pitches due to a better lineup around him – he should be an improved player. If not – he will be replaced sooner rather than later.

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