I was reminded recently of an essay that I read in high school: “A Modest Proposal,” a satirical essay written in 1729 by Jonathan Swift to poke fun at the rationalism of modern economics, and the growth of rationalistic modes of thinking, which many believed had displaced traditional human values. Swift’s main “proposal” was literally to feed the impoverished Irish populace with the nation’s youth in order to benefit the country socially and economically. The essay was blatant satire, of course, but Swift’s proposal has stuck with me to this day.
How is this baseball-related, you might ask? I’ve taken inspiration from Swift’s piece and I’d like to offer my own “modest proposal” for the Houston Astros. I promise it doesn’t contemplate turning children into a “ragout”!
My proposal: In an effort to prolong Jose Altuve’s career and ensure his health for the 2019 regular and postseasons, the Astros should re-arrange their infield. That’s right. The team should shift Carlos Correa to third base, Alex Bregman to shortstop, and adopt a “committee” approach at second base, in which Aledmys Diaz and Jose Altuve split playing time (perhaps 80% Diaz/20% Altuve). On “Diaz days” at second base, Altuve will appear as DH, and on “Altuve days,” either Diaz or another player (perhaps Michael Brantley or George Springer) will appear as DH.
A few caveats. My proposal relies on the assumption that Diaz is capable of returning to his 2016 All-Star, “Rookie-of-the-Year” form, when he hit .300/.369/.510, with 17 HR, 65 RBI and a 3.5 bWAR over 460 plate appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals. Assuming Diaz can produce, shifting Altuve to DH will (a) allow him an opportunity to recover gradually from his offseason surgery; (b) enable him to stay healthy for the 2019 regular and post-seasons; and (c) prolong his career to protect the Astros’ significant investment in his recent contract extension ($151 M/5 years).
I love Jose Altuve. His energy on the field and in the clubhouse is crucial to the Astros’ success. But at age 28 (29 this May) and at his stature (5′ 6″, 165 lbs) and playing position, it seems likely that he has 2-3 “peak physical” years left before he begins the inevitable decline that comes after age 30. Why not prolong his physical productivity by playing him at DH and sparing him the demands of an everyday role at second base?
Over the last three seasons, Altuve’s “innings played” at second base have declined from 1,307.0 in 2016, to 1,283.1 in 2017, to 1,136.2 in 2018; perhaps the Astros are already making efforts to limit his on-field exposure. Moreover, advanced fielding metrics may suggest that Altuve’s days as a standout defensive second baseman are nearing an end. Last season, he recorded his lowest Range Factor (“RF”) (*see below explanation) since he first appeared as an everyday second baseman in 2012 (2012: 4.89 RF over 1,226.2 innings; 2013: 4.75 RF over 1,261.2 innings; 2014: 4.80 RF over 1,362.1 innings; 2015: 4.49 RF over 1,330.2 innings; 2016: 3.91 RF over 1,307 innings; 2017: 3.87 RF over 1,283.1 innings; 2018: 3.33 RF over 1,136.2 innings). As the numbers demonstrate, Altuve’s effectiveness at second base has seen a rapid and surprisingly significant decline.
No advanced metric is “bulletproof,” but the range factor data are representative of a general trend that could begin to materialize as soon as this season. The Astros have built a reputation as one of MLB’s most innovative and forward-thinking organizations. Why not be proactive and preserve Altuve for future years as one of the franchise’s most foundational players? Swift’s “modest proposal” may have strained credulity, but mine seems at least worthy of consideration. At the very least, my proposal is more modest than Swift’s.
*Range Factor is an advanced metric used to measure defensive performance. It is calculated by dividing a player’s putouts and assists by the number of innings or games they played at a given defensive position.
Featured Photo: Keith Allison, Flickr