Jose Altuve: 2017 MVP. Career .312 hitter. One of the best 20 players in all of baseball over the past decade.
And, just over halfway through the abbreviated 2020 season, the worst regular on the Astros roster. Let’s just compare his core stats to the years since his MVP run:
It doesn’t stop there: his strikeout rate, consistently in the top 10% of the league (about 10% of at-bats), has plummeted to just better than league average (19.3%, compared to the league’s 21.7%). His exit velocity has dropped by a full mile per hour from last season, and now sits two mph below the league average.
What’s causing the problem? We can split this into two main areas:
Chasing Bad Pitches
Altuve has never exactly exuded patience at the plate. In his best seasons, his walk rate has approached league average. Rather, his ability to consistently make contact defined his plate approach over the past several years. The average hitter makes contact on roughly 62% of swings at pitches outside the strike zone; Altuve’s last five seasons ranged between 73% and 82%. Even within the zone, the league averages about 85%; Altuve ranged between 91% and 95%. Altuve clearly possessed an elite ability to put the bat on the ball.
In 2020, his contact rate within the zone has dipped to 89%; a drop, but certainly well above average. But his contact rate outside the zone has dropped to 68% – much closer to average, and a significant decline from his peak. This correlates closely to the pitches Altuve swings at. Again, he’s never shown any hesitation to expand the zone, consistently swinging at 33% of pitches outside the strike zone (compared to a league average of 30%); in 2020, this spiked to 38%. He’s not getting worse pitches – 39.4% out of the zone this year, versus 39.9% and 39.6% the last two years – he’s simply swinging at more of them; and so while his overall swing rate (percentage of all pitches taking a swing) has risen to 49.% from 47%, his swing-and-miss rate has jumped from 7% to 10%. Simply put, if you swing at more bad pitches, you swing and miss more.
Without the assistance of technology available to the teams, such as a Blast Motion sensor, we can only infer bat speed from results. And to infer those results, we can look at his results by pitch type:
In 2019, Altuve feasted on fastballs and struggled with anything off-speed. But in 2020, we see his performance against breaking balls drop dramatically further; this lines up with his chasing pitches outside the zone, where most breaking balls will end up. But why would he suddenly stop driving fastballs? If we look at his performance against changeups, he’s actually performed better this year. If a player isn’t catching up to fastballs as well, but hitting changeups better, then the logical conclusion becomes that his swing has slowed down.
The Elephant in the Room
Any analysis of a player’s decline in performance for the Astros will meet with the inevitable response, some variation of, “See – he can’t hit without cheating!” So let’s ignore, for a second, the testimony of practically every Astro, but most especially Carlos Correa, that Altuve wanted nothing to do with the infamous “banging scheme.” Let’s ignore the analytical data that showed the trashcan bangs were heard on fewer than 30 pitches for Altuve, all grouped toward the beginning of the scheme – clear data that he told his teammates to knock it off while he hit. Let’s take the MLB report at its face value, that all Astros benefited equally from the sign stealing.
That same report indicated that the Astros abandoned the scheme in 2018. Why, then, did Altuve chase fewer balls outside the zone in 2018 (From 31.8% in 2017 to 30.0% in 2018)? If Altuve wore a “buzzer” in 2019, why did he chase exactly the same amount of balls (30.0%) outside the zone in 2019?
No, to believe Altuve’s decline in 2020 results from him no longer cheating requires the simultaneous belief that:
- MLB correctly identified the 2017 sign stealing scheme;
- Both Altuve’s teammates and the analyses of the audio tapes incorrectly claimed he stopped using the scheme;
- MLB incorrectly claimed the Astros stopped the scheme in 2018;
- MLB not only did not identify any sign stealing for the Astros, but that a Twitter vlogger not only identified a sign stealing buzzer for Altuve, but that method did not improve on his 2018 performance;
- And that Altuve stopped using the buzzer in 2020, and while it did NOT help in 2019, no longer using it hurt him in 2020.
Sorry, but all those conflicting assumptions just make my head hurt. Instead, Occam’s Razor points to two simpler causes of Altuve’s issues – one physical (some problem that slows his swing) and one mental (likely that he feels too much to prove, leading him to chase more pitches.)
Featured Image: Houston Astros (@astros) / Twitter