The Next Mr Astro?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Houston Astros

By Darren Helley

Pound for pound, inch for inch, Jose Altuve is the best contact hitter in baseball. 2014 proved just that; the mighty mouse from Venezuela walked away with the AL Batting Title and both the All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger award at Second Base in the American League. Coupled with his 2012 All-Star honours, Altuve became the first player to represent both the American and National leagues at the Summer Classic whilst being a player for the same franchise.

The minuscule frame of 5ft 5 and 165 lbs generated a mind-blowing 225 hits, a .341 batting average and turned on the turbo between the bases with 56 stolen bases in 2014. He was the first player since Ray Chapman in 1917 to steal two or more bases in four consecutive games when he stole his second bag against the Tigers on June 29th. Altuve was the first MLB player since 1933 to accumulate over 130 hits and 40 steals by the All-Star break in July and solidified his legacy with one of the most offensively productive seasons in Astros’ history. With a slugging percentage of .453 and an OPS of .830, Altuve became one of the most powerful lead-off hitters in recent years. He drove in 59 RBI, which ranked 2nd on the 2014 Astros’ behind clean-up hitter DH Chris Carter. To be that high on a club’s RBI chart as the lead-off hitter reflects the surprising amount of power behind the Venezuelan’s bat during his iconic season.

You would think that a player that small, with that small of a strikezone, should generate a very high walk ratio. Think again. Altuve’s 36 walks were surprisingly low considering his OBP of .377, which was considerably high due to his ability to avoid striking out (53; 8% rate). When Altuve saw a pitch worth hitting, he would hit it, even if it was out of his strikezone; even if it was outside of any strikezone. September 22nd saw Altuve jump a good 8 inches off the ground to make contact with a fastball against the Texas Rangers in attempts to execute a hit-and-run. The fact that he was able to make contact on a pitch that ended up higher than himself generated a highlight that went viral across the league. It also reflected how Altuve was able to achieve such crazy numbers in 2014, by simply making contact and putting the ball in play.

It’s very worth pointing out that not only did Altuve obliterate Craig Biggio’s franchise record for hits in a single season, but his AL Batting Title was the first in Astros history. So would calling Jose Altuve the next Mr Astro cause too much of a stir? After all, it’s fitting that shortly after Altuve produced such a historical season, the ‘Mr Astro’ himself, Craig Biggio, was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame after agonizingly missing out the year before. Joining a trio of pitching legends in Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Schmoltz, we were treated to a deserved celebration of arguably the greatest player to dawn a Houston Astros jersey in history.

Both Altuve and Biggio had very different introductions to baseball, for the current Astro had nowhere near the luxurious upbringing the now-hall of famer endured on the path towards the major leagues. Altuve was signed back in 2007 after a very strong tenure in the Venezuelan Summer League, hitting .343. He received a $15,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent. Biggio was the 22nd overall pick out of the 1987 MLB Draft and his starting salary once in the majors was at $78,000. Translate that into today’s money.

Biggio received accolades from as far back as high school; the Hansen Award winner (best football player in Suffolk County, NY) in 1983 out of Kings Park HS, Long Island and a baseball scholarship into Seton Hall University were the first of many incredible achievements for the young, prosperous New York state native. He got to play ball with the likes of future legends Mo Vaughn and Jon Valentin. Biggio fought his way into becoming one of the best players in both high school and in college.

Jose Altuve was not the best of his class, as unbelievable as that may seem after what we’ve already seen from him at the major league level. Altuve’s life-changing 2007 season in Venezuela saw him rank 6th overall in batting average underneath four unknown minors and the league-leader, none other than current New York Mets Shortstop Ruben Tejada. Yes, that Ruben Tejada, whom at the same age as Altuve (17) broke into baseball in the United States, still can’t seem to win back his starting job from Wilmer Flores. Baseball can throw some funny, curveball narratives.

That being said, Altuve is accustomed to facing adversity in all shapes and sizes. Forget about the foes that Craig Biggio had to come up against during his legendary career; May 1st 2012 saw Altuve step up to the plate against New York Mets reliever Jon Rauch. At 6ft 11, Rauch is the tallest recorded player in MLB history. Barring the publicity stunt involving 3ft 7 Eddie Gaedel and the St Louis Browns back in 1951, the 18 inch height differential was the largest recorded between a pitcher and batter. 18 inches is wider than home plate, to make it easier for you to digest how much height we are talking about.

So how does Altuve’s historic 2014 campaign fare with the likes of Biggio’s All-Star calibre years? From a batting perspective, Altuve’s .341 average would crush any attempt of a high batting average from Biggio barring his 1998 campaign where he hit .325. That happened to be the same year when Biggio made the Astros’ hit record his own, another hitting category in which Altuve has one over Mr Astro in his heyday. And what makes Altuve such a dangerous hitter- putting the ball in play- also has him one-upping Biggio in terms of strikeouts. 1996 saw Biggio play the entire 162-game season (one of his three seasons doing so) in which he struck out a career-low 72 times as a full-time starter. Altuve had 55 more at-bats in 2014 than that particular year for the hall of famer and struck out only 53 times. That’s only a mere 7.5% strikeout ratio and a 12.5 at-bat/strikeout ratio by the current Astro. Biggio surpassed 10% in every one of his 20 seasons and compiled a 14% strikeout average for his career. It’s a dominating theme that Altuve will have over Biggio; he puts the ball in play at such a high rate, to the extent where one can say that the current AL Batting Champion excels as a lead-off hitter than Biggio.

But what Biggio still has over Altuve, and likely forever will, is the sheer power of a batter who realistically should have hit 3rd in the order for the majority of his career. Yes, Altuve showed off impressive power as a lead-off hitter in 2014. He not only led his Astros’ team in doubles (47), but scored more than double than his closest counterparts (Carter, Castro, Fowler; 21). But in 1998, in what was his final All-Star season, Biggio tallied 51 doubles. Then in the season after in 1999, he produced a career-high 56 doubles. This was the point in Biggio’s career where he was at his most powerful, compiling career-high values in slugging (.503) in ’98 and OPS (.916) in ’97. Those sort of numbers are scary. Biggio is the MLB all-time leader in home runs to lead off a game, with 50. And speaking of home runs; at the age of 39, Biggio produced a career-high 26 home runs in 2005 in a campaign that led the Astros to the National League Pennant and the World Series.

Biggio’s power was very rare for a second baseman, compiling 291 in his 20 seasons. His 162-game average would be 17, which is way ahead of Altuve’s current high of 7 in each of his two All-Star campaigns (2012, 2014). In terms of OPS+, Altuve is not far off the heights of Biggio’s peak during the late 1990s; his 135 OPS+ would rank 5th amongst Biggio’s single season records. The same result applies to Altuve’s player value. 2014 saw the young Venezuelan produced a 6.0 WAR, which was an incredible accomplishment amongst an Astros side still rebuilding for the long-term future. Whilst this figure is nowhere close to Biggio’s monster year in 1997, where he produced a monumental 9.4 WAR, Altuve’s 2014 campaign would sit right up there next to Biggio’s All-Star campaigns of ’95, ’96 and ’98. In fact, Altuve’s 6.0 WAR would far outperform the likes of Biggio’s All-Star seasons of ’91, ’92 and ’94.

Matching up to the x5 Silver Slugger Biggio would be a monumental challenge for Altuve, but it pales in comparison to squaring off defensively against the x4 Gold Glove winner at Second Base. Craig Biggio wrote the one and only book on converting from 2 to 4 on the defensive sheet. He is the only player in MLB history to accomplish Silver Slugger and All-Star achievements at both Catcher and Second Base. It’s hard to put it in terms how rare it is for such a talented backstop to convert to the Second Base position, as well as further improving in defensive capabilities. At the two-bag, Biggio put up a career average of 4.95 R/F and a .982 Fielding Percentage. Altuve has put up credible defensive values; his career high in R/F coming in 2012 (4.89) is, however, no match against Biggio’s defensive supremacy in the late 1990s. Between 1993 to 1999, Biggio compiled R/F’s over 5 in six of those seven campaigns, with his peak coming in 1994 (5.17). That being said, Altuve has become renown around the league as one of the most secure, reliable gloves in a ground-ball, double-play scenario. He connected on 114 in 2013, not far away from Biggio’s 117 in 1999.

One of the big reasons why Craig Biggio was rather forcibly converted into a second baseman was for his athletic ability and pure speed around the bases. Biggio could run fast and hard. Now Jose Altuve had already proven that he would outpace Craig Biggio during his heyday; 56 stolen bases far outshines any one of Biggio’s impressive campaigns between the bags (39 in 1994). But Biggio will go down as one of the most reliable and consistent baserunners in recent memory. 1994 saw his Stolen Base percentage reach 91%, and 2005 saw the then-39 year-old tally a 92% rate. Age finally caught up on Biggio when he hit the forty’s, but it didn’t cut into an impressive 77% stolen base rate over his 20 years. Altuve’s current percentage stands at 79% but has already produced two seasons in which he has been caught stealing over 10 times. And while Altuve has proven he can provide the greater bat out of the lead-off spot, it’s Biggio who would provide the greater baserunner out of the same part of the line-up. His Run Scoring percentage is 37% and produced a 45% XBT rate for his career.

Like I said, Jose Altuve is very common with facing adversity in all shapes and sizes, even if it’s the legacy and numbers of a Hall of Famer and face of the Astros franchise. Just entering his 5th MLB season, Altuve has already produced offensive numbers that would knock the iconic Mr Astro off his pedestal. But such are still very limited, which is no surprise given the all-round talent that will always be associated with Craig Biggio. One thing is for sure, however, and that is Jose Altuve can make more contact than the legend himself. That will go a very long way for the future of the mighty mouse from Venezuela.

You can find Darren on twitter @DarrenHelley and join in the conversation @CTBPod

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