Tuesday, March 5, 2024
AL WestAmerican LeagueAnalysisHouston AstrosMLB

The Mystery of Jose Altuve’s Terrible 2020 Season

The Machine

Bang Bang, Buzz Buzz. Now that we’re done with that, let’s get to the topic of discussion. Jose Altuve has been an offensive metronome setting the Astros’ squad up for success for the majority of the decade. He’s amassed a decent collection of hardware including 3 batting titles and an MVP award. The last time we saw him in action, he almost tied the MLB record for hits in a single postseason, racking up 25 to fall just short of Pablo Sandoval’s 26. I covered the absurd production of his 9-year career and Hall of Fame peers in my previous article projecting his path to the 3000 hit club. This year, however, a wrench has been thrown into the gears of this finely tuned hitting machine.

His inauspicious start to the 2020 campaign has left me looking like quite the clown. He’s batting well below the Mendoza line and is currently occupying territory usually reserved by pitchers. Even during an offensive explosion sparked by the return of Yordan Alvarez, Altuve was left out in the cold going 0-5. The following day marked the first time since April 23, 2012 he has hit 7th or later in the lineup. His wRC+ is currently sitting at 59, half his simulated production by FanGraphs of 116. His OPS+ is 61, falling below 125 for the first time since 2013. Somewhere within the refined clockwork of Jose Altuve’s swing, damage has occurred.

How concerned should fans be? After all, Altuve is hardly the only anomalous data point this season. Charlie Blackmon is batting .446, Jeff Mathis has a .333 OBP, and a litany of other stars including Gary Sanchez (.133), Joc Pederson (.153), Max Muncy (.179), Kris Bryant (.182), Cody Bellinger (.187), and Christian Yelich (.194) are all experiencing similarly dismal seasons at the plate. [For more information about these players and others, check out this article by our own Kyle Berger.] Eno Sarris of The Athletic has found that offense is down league-wide, with the MLB average falling below .240 for the first time since 1968, which prompted several rule changes. Could this all be explained by a series of unfortunate events?

The Theories

For those that don’t have a subscription to The Athletic, I’ll briefly recount the possible reasons for the league-wide depression of offensive production. The ball has changed AGAIN, reverting back to drag levels reminiscent of the 2017 season. Starters are pitching less, reducing times through the order penalties and increasing the number of pitchers a batter has to prepare for. Shifting is WAY up, with 24 of 30 teams increasing their shift percentage, as well as employing bolder positioning in those shifts. Related to this matter, BABIP is down to .276, which is lower than at any point since free agency began in 1972. I’ll address each of these factors with respect to the league as a whole, and then how they are or are not affecting Houston’s favorite midget.

The Baseball Is Less Friendly to Offenses This Year

The analytics community trained a spotlight on the league’s apparent lack of control of the production process of the baseball last season. This was spurred by a sudden dip in home runs at the start of the postseason. If you followed Jeremy Frank on Twitter, you would be treated to several posts each day highlighting how balls hit in the playoffs with nearly identical exit velocities and launch angles to the regular season were suddenly not clearing the wall. Meredith Wills won the Contemporary Baseball Analysis Award at the 2020 SABR analytics conference for her work on the amorphous ballistics of the 2019 baseball. MLB heard the message even if they didn’t acknowledge it, as the ball this year is far less explosive. This is reflected in the HR/flyball rate and HR/9 stats, which are down 1.3% and .13 respectively. This is the first year since 2015 the rate hasn’t gone up.

Circling back to Jose Altuve, this is the least important factor for explaining his offensive slump. He put up the best stats of his career in 2017, absolutely crushing baseballs. Career highs in BA (.346), wRC+ (160), OPS+ (160), wOBA (.405), and fWAR (7.6). He had a five-game streak of 2+ hits three times during that season. It capped off an incredible run of 4 consecutive seasons with 200+ hits, making Altuve the 3rd player to accomplish that particular feat since WWII ended. He was hitting like it was a senior slow-pitch softball league. In 2020, with a very similar baseball, he has career lows in all those stats. The change in the ball will primarily affect launch angle monsters like Nelson Cruz rather than contact-oriented batters like Altuve. We can blame 2020 for plenty of things, but this is one of the exceptions.

Shifts Are Getting Shiftier

The defensive shift is the most obvious sabermetric change to the game of baseball. The average viewer doesn’t know about differences in lineup construction, launch angles, or TTO penalties. They will immediately notice something has changed if 8 of 9 defensive players are standing on the right side of the field, however.

The Astros employed an extreme shift against Joey Gallo in 2018

Why players refuse to bunt in theses situations exasperates me. Back to the topic at hand though, shifting has increased dramatically this year. As I mentioned earlier, 80% of teams are shifting more often which has led to a net 10% increase in the number of shifts this year (25.6% in 2019 to 35.5% in 2020). This isn’t anything new, as shifting has become both more common and more radical every year since 2014. All the while, BABIP never dipped below .293 and never rose above .303, the same as it’s been for nearly 50 years. So it seems unlikely that this would be the major malfunction for Private Altuve.

It’s worth looking into the player-specific data to confirm this hunch. Given Altuve’s penchant for spraying the ball all over the field, he doesn’t receive a shift very often. From 2016 to 2018 defenses employed a shift less than 3% of the time when Altuve stood in the batter’s box. This rose sharply in 2019 to 15% of the time but is back down to 8.4% this season. Ironically he carries a wOBA of .285 against shifts this year to only .243 without one. Those numbers are so low teams may be deciding that shifting on him simply isn’t worth the trouble given his ongoing woes at the plate. Looking at his batted ball statistics shows that his contact this year is weaker than ever before, but is still distributed rather evenly to all fields.

Shifting may be up around the league, but it is actually down by almost 50% from last year for Jose. We will have to look elsewhere for an explanation.

Less Opportunity Against Starting Pitchers

Starting pitchers who pitch deep into games are becoming the exception rather than the rule. This strategic revolution was prompted by a rash of injuries, particularly UCL tears requiring Tommy John surgery, and data analysts. These days, its common knowledge to statheads that offenses hit better after they have seen a pitcher a second or even a third time in a game. Managers have their pitchers on shorter leashes than ever before. In an effort to avoid late-inning implosions, pitchers are pulled and the bullpen takes over. For proof positive of this, we have to look back no further than game 7 of the World Series, when AJ Hinch pulled Zack Greinke in the 7th inning.

Starters have been pulled from games earlier and earlier for over a century, but 2020 has kicked things into warp speed. Getting through a 9 inning game is more of a team effort than ever before, requiring more bullpens arms to contribute to each game. The TTO penalty is disappearing before our eyes. This means batters are seeing more relievers, more pitchers total, and are less comfortable in the box as a result.

Could an increased number of relievers faced be cratering Altuve’s offensive metrics? Common sense would say yes, as relievers are gnerally utilized in favorable match-ups, throw harder, and have less fatigue. After calculating Altuve’s wOBA splits by TTO myself, it became clear that the increased utilization of bullpen arms this year would have a drastic effect on him. His career wOBA sits at .360, which is about 40 points below Mike Trout and 40 above MLB average for some context. When you bring a relief pitcher into face Altuve for the first time however, his career wOBA plummets down to a pitiful .286, below the threshold for what FanGraph’s considers “awful.” His tOPS+, which represents his OPS in this situation relative to all others, craters to 56. If a manager makes the mistake of leaving this reliever in to face our vertically challenged Venezuelan hero a 2nd time however, he returns to form with a wOBA of .350.

The above chart quantifies my earlier statement about Altuve’s consistency at the plate. A simple hunch about RP effectiveness isn’t good enough though. This is an analytics website, and I’m not Gary Sheffield Jr, I need evidence to back up my wild assertions. Altuve’s seemingly horrific stats vs RP in his first TTO could be normal. Alas, this is not the case. Relievers this century have allowed a wOBA approximately 0.010 points lower than starters. In 2019, this would have dropped the average hitter from .313 to .303. Altuve is not an average hitter though, so seeing his wOBA drop 0.050 points, five times the average, is quite shocking.

Having established that SP are being pulled from games en masse earlier than ever, and Jose does dramatically worse against RPs during his first PA against them, there is a logical progression forming here. Increasing the amount of PAs against RP would be a plausible explanation for Altuve’s struggles this year. For his career, only 33% of PAs came against RPs, meaning the elite version of Altuve was present 66% of the time. In 2020 however, through 21 games played, 48% of his PAs have come against RPs. His wOBA values reflect this greatly exaggerated trend.

Altuve has only had 2 PAs vs a RP the second TTO, so the 0 wOBA seen here should be ignored

Some readers may be wondering what this pattern looks like in 2017, the season that shall not be named. Well, to satisfy my your curiosity, have another bar graph. Hooray!

Upon first inspection, that certainly looks suspicious. Career highs in almost every category. That proves it then, he is a filthy cheater, Jomboy was right about the buzzers, and I have to apologize to Asterisk Tour now. ORRRRRRRRR we can inspect things a little more closely. We know from the Commissioner’s report and interviews with Astros’ players that it took some time to decode signals. Therefore, it would be expected that Altuve would see increasing benefits the longer a pitcher was in the game. The opposite is shown here. He is performing .170 points above his career average wOBA against RP in his 1st PA, but .150 points below his career average wOBA in his 2nd PA against those relievers. Additionally, he is doing worse the longer a SP stays in the game. All of this backs up the data from Tony Adam’s website that Altuve avoided using the trashcan, as well as other underhanded methods employed by the 2017 Astros.

Now the we know what causes Altuve to Struggle, we need to figure out why?

Relievers Provide No Relief

To be honest with you, I had no idea going into this that Altuve struggled like this against relief pitchers. It likely doesn’t explain his lack of production entirely, but it sets us down the right path. In order to determine what changes from SP to RP in Altuve’s ABs, granular pitch-by-pitch data would be needed. Fortunately, Baseball Savant exists for this very purpose. It only contains advanced StatCast data back to 2015, but that should be more than enough.

The Menu Hasn’t Changed

The easiest explanation would be that teams have radically altered the types of pitches thrown to Altuve, and he has yet to make an adjustment to this new tactic. Unfortunately for myself and Jose, it’s not so simple. Pitchers are delivering 6% more breaking pitches this year and 4% fewer fastballs, but that constitutes a minor alteration in approach, not a revolution that would incapacitate one the decade’s best hitters. The velocity, horizontal, and vertical break on pitches thrown to him this year are all identical to previous years as well. If pitchers have not changed their approach when it comes to pitch selection, but what about location?

There are some slight differences beginning to emerge here. Since StatCast data doesn’t contain a filter for SP vs RP, I have allotted Innings 1-5 as handled by a starter and innings 6-13 as being pitched by a reliever. As far as methodologies go, I’d rate this one not great, not terrible. There are of course sample size issues here as there have only been 21 games this season, but there’s nothing to be done about that. It’s clear that SP (on the left) attack the zone more evenly than RP, who concentrate 21.3% of pitches thrown in the low and away “shadow” portion of the zone.

Left: Pitch % by zone for all pitches thrown to Jose Altuve in innings 1-5 of the 2020 season
Right: Pitch % by zone for all pitches thrown to Jose Altuve in innings 6-13* of the 2020 season
*The Astros have played 5 extra-inning games in 2020, 2 of which have lasted until the 13th inning

This is a fairly obvious plan of attack, so I can’t imagine that I have figured this out before the Astros’ front office, either of the team’s hitting coaches, or Jose himself. Furthermore, replicating the search in Savant for 2019 showed a nearly identical plan of attack to the late-inning plot, so this approach is not a novel method of breaking a superstar hitter.

Left: Heatmap of all pitches thrown to Jose Altuve in 2020
Right: Heatmap of all pitches thrown to Jose Altuve in 2019

If anything, this visualization raises more questions about Altuve’s recent struggles. Pitchers have made more mistakes leaving meatballs over the heart of the plate early in the season, yet Jose seems incapable of capitalizing on the opportunities. This whole exercise seemingly produced no answers and a multitude of questions. There is one final thing to consider, the Swing Take values.

The mathematical whizzes over at MLB Advanced Media have defined the run value of all batted ball events, and thanks to pitch tracking data a hitter’s efficiency in creating runs by pitch location can be compared to the rest of their peers. Jose Altuve has a very peculiar Swing Take profile, as he is a below-average hitter on balls over the heart of the plate but far above average in all other areas. This has not always been the case, as from 2015-2017 he was worth a total of +30 runs for pitches thrown in the heart of the plate. Over the course of 2018 and 2019 his value has fallen drastically, being worth -13 runs on pitches in the same area. All of the value he generated in both seasons was based on plate discipline, rather than actual batted ball events. This pattern of decline is likely continuing in 2020.

If that is the case, and he is getting worse at hitting balls that should be the easiest to crush, then we may have stumbled on a partial explanation here. The heatmap of pitch locations for 2020 shows more pitches missing over the heart of the plate than in 2019. Is it possible that throwing pitches down the middle to a player with a career batting average of .313 is actually the best plan of attack at this point? That seems improbable, but short of any other solid explanation, we must follow the advice of Sherlock Holmes.

Congratulations! You have read 2676 words so far, but I fear I have failed to provide you with a solid answer to the question posed in the headline. A less favorable baseball and increased shifting have almost nothing to do with Altuve’s struggles. There’s a proven history of struggles against relief pitchers by TTO, but diving deep into pitching metrics hasn’t yielded a good answer either. That leaves one other possibility, but it lacks any objective proof.

The Ghost in the Machine

Sports psychology is a very strange thing. The level of performance professional athletes are chasing requires near perfection on a daily basis. Tiny incongruities can lead to cataclysmic effects for players. As Yogi Berra famously wrote, “90% of the game is half mental.” Fixing the mind is never as easy as fixing the body. It can take years, as Daniel Bard’s recent comeback has shown. The Astros’ off season was a harrowing experience for players, as they (rightfully) drew the ire of the sporting world for the transgressions in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Their apology tour gave off appearances of being contrived rather than contrite. Their peers called them cowards, cheaters, and snitches, the Commisioner called their trophy “just a piece of metal” and their accomplishments were belittled.

Jose Altuve became the focal point of this criticism, as he was a recent playoff hero and the MVP of a tainted season. Rivals accused him of stealing the award from other players. Threats were made towards him and his family. Through it all, he refused to shirk responsibility as the team’s leader. Despite the fact that analysts have shown the cheating had little effect, despite the fact its been proven that he did not use the banging scheme. He shouldered the burden for the organization.

That type of experience would lead to extra pressure to perform. Each pitch, each at bat takes on a new significance. Every bad swing, looking strikeout, or HBP is just karma, a reason for others to cheer at your failure. Altuve is no stranger to doubters, and he has never been short on confidence. Though the story of him being turned away from a tryout due to questions about his age is false, it is emblematic of his struggle to reach the majors. He signed for a meager $15,000 dollars, a pittance compared to other international signees. His height has always been listed at 5′ 7″ to make his baseball projection more palatable to scouts, his weight likely exaggerated upwards to 165 pounds as well. His problems were always presumed to be physical.

Altuve carried these burdens with him through the minor leagues and into the majors, only to replace them with the responsibilities of leadership, and eventually the duty of team punching bag. The majority of the Astros’ roster came out of the gate slow, with Springer, Bregman, Altuve and others hitting below .200 for several games. All the other stars have turned it around. Altuve is currently batting .187, a value you would expect from platoon players like Miles Straw or Abraham Toro, not the 6x All-Star. The weight of expectations, both internal and external, seems to be lowering his stats and pushing him down the lineup card, a move that came at his request.

Just watch these two at bats, the first from 2019, the second from 2020. He’s standing in the same place in the box, flicking the bat casually, before driving through the baseball. Last year, it turns into a homerun. This year, it turns into a strikeout.

Jose Altuve hit a 438′ HR vs James Paxton, his 2nd of the game
Jose Altuve strikes out swinging against Jesus Luzardo. The benches would clear the next inning.

The yips, a bug in the programming, a wrench in the gears, call it what you will. Jose is having the worst season of his career at the plate, and the numbers don’t provide a clear explanation as to why. There may be nothing wrong with his swing. This slump would be a footnote in a full-length season. But, as is the case with all things this year, the problems have been magnified. I’ve likened Altuve to a machine throughout this article, but nothing seems to be mechanically wrong with him. He needs to get his head, not his body, back into shape.

Jacob Hubbard

Jake is a lifelong baseball fan and grew up watching the Round Rock Express MiLB games. He played baseball from ages 2-19, but a 20 graded power tool forced him to retire. Now he spends his days yelling at Fangraphs and Baseball Savant. You can find him on Twitter @FeelSurgical