While the biggest story of the 2020 season (if we ignore “IT”) for the Astros was the decimation of their pitching staff and the rise of young pitchers to try and re-float the boat, the story that received less attention was the collapse of the Astros’ offense.
Yordan Alvarez played two games and missed the rest due to injury. Alex Bregman went from MVP candidate to Mr. Blah. Carlos Correa dropped from premier offensive numbers to average shortstop numbers. Yuli Gurriel suddenly looked like someone who had turned 36 but also like someone who had lied about being 36. And Jose Altuve…..well Jose out-did or rather under-did them all.
Back in the can banging days of 2017, Jose was El Primo. He was 27 years old and putting up career highs in BA (.357), OBP (.410) and OPS (.957). And he beat out Aaron Judge for AL MVP and of course helped lead the Astros to their first World Championship.
He was still quite good in both 2018 (.316 BA/.386 OBP/ .837 OPS) and 2019 (.298 BA/ .353 OBP/ .903 OPS and a career-high 31 HRs). And of course, in 2019 he capped things off with the ALCS winning walk-off HR against the Yankees.
And then 2020 happened. Jose was consistently rotten throughout the season and put up a career-low slash of .219 BA/ .286 OBP/ .629 OPS with only 5 HRs and 18 RBIs on the shortened season. He gave the team and fans some hope with a good performance in the playoffs, but folks have to be bothered that the soon to be 31-year-old may not be worth $116 MM over the next 4 seasons. That is a pretty huge salary anchor for the team’s ship to carry, if he does not improve over 2020 when he was arguably the worst offensive starter on the team.
So are there any reasons for optimism heading into 2021 for Altuve?
- Well, first of all, anyone watching him flail away in 2020 could tell that the man was stressing himself out to the maximum to try and make up for “IT”. He looked like someone trying 200% to prove that he was a great hitter, who was not assisted by the scandal and as often happens when people try too hard, he ended up proving to some the opposite. He seemed to relax a bit more in the playoffs after the Carlos Correa supportive statement and hit more like his normal self.
- For his career, Jose Altuve’s Batting Average for Balls in Play (BAbip) is .334. Before last season it had never been below .303 in any season. In 2020, it was a career-low .250. This would seem to be a combination of bad luck along with someone who rather than hit the ball where it was pitched was pulling everything into the defensive shift. This can be corrected and as per the first bullet, was corrected a bit in the playoffs.
- If George Springer does not return, Jose should be the natural first choice to lead off in the lineup. When he has led off in the past, he has done a better job of laying off the bad stuff, working counts and getting on base rather than trying to be a middle of the order home run cranker. This approach, if applied again should help him improve as a hitter in 2021.
- If, and this is an important proviso, the rest of the lineup behind him improves from the malaise of 2020, that should help Jose get better pitches to hit. If he is batting first in front of a back to normal Bregman, a healthy Alvarez, a playing-for-the-big-contract Correa, a young and improving Kyle Tucker and whoever may be brought in to help in the outfield, Altuve should be someone they cannot pitch around. That of course depends on him being a bit more selective.
- He also must work on improving his strikeout percentage. His K% has gotten worse every single year from 2014 to 2020. It was an elite 7.5% in his first All Star season in 2014 and still was a good 12.7% in his MVP season of 2017. In 2020 it rose to an unacceptable (for him) 18.6%. Watching him hit in 2020 was painful because we knew what this same player could do when he made the pitchers come to him.
So, to answer the question in the title….yes, Jose Altuve can be the Altuve of 2018 and 2019 again. At 31 years old he is not likely to be the MVP again, but if he comes back in 2021 ready to be more selective, go with the pitches and put the ball in play, there is no reason he can’t be a top-notch hitter again.