As we prepare to enter the stretch run of the 2016 season, it'll soon be time to begin serious discussions about the major awards candidates. MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year ... those awards.
I know, I know. Many folks believe the MVP should come from a postseason bound team, and if the season ended today, the Astros would not be in the postseason. I don't see it that way though. MVP is an individual award and Altuve's teammates shouldn't diminish his case.
Thursday afternoon, in Game 1 of their doubleheader against the Twins (HOU 15, MIN 7), Altuve went 4 for 5 with a double and a walk. He drove in three runs and scored three others, and also made a great play at second base. Here's the very necessary highlight video:
The 4 for 5 performance raised Altuve's season batting line to .366/.432/.575, which obviously puts him in the conversation as one of baseball's best hitters. There's also this:
Jose Altuve on the road since May 1 (39 games): .503/.553/.690.— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) August 11, 2016
That's ridiculous. I know it's an arbitrary endpoint and road games only, but man, Altuve's hitting over .500 in his last 39 road games. That's nuts. No one is supposed to be able to do that.
Altuve is hitting .366 overall and the next highest batting average among qualified hitters belongs to Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy. Murphy's hitting .346, a full 20 points lower than Altuve. The next highest batting average in the AL is .319 by Angels third baseman Yunel Escobar. That's a 47-point gap.
There's more to life than batting average, of course. Altuve also leads all of baseball in on-base percentage (.432) and hits (163), and he's second in total bases (256). You know what, let's just list his ranks among the 158 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title:
AVG: .366 (1st)
OBP: .432 (1st)
SLG: .575 (3rd)
OPS: 1.007 (2nd)
Extra-Base Hits: 52 (19th)
Stolen Bases: 26 (6th)
Walk Rate: 9.6 percent (49th)
Strikeout Rate: 9.8 percent (2nd)
Pretty much the only knock on Altuve's game is that he doesn't walk at an elite level. That's like picking on the Mona Lisa for her smile. Altuve is a premium power-speed threat and the game's best hitter for average. He's also a top flight base-stealer. He beats you in so many different ways.
When you add in his defense and positional value, Altuve is second in WAR to Angels outfielder Mike Trout (7.2 to 6.7). Given the inexact science, I don't see a difference of 0.5 wins being all that meaningful. We're still well within with the error bars of WAR. That's not meant to diminish Trout, who is a brilliant player himself. It just means Altuve is performing at a Troutian level this year.
Altuve's success not just this season, but in his career to date -- he's a career .313/.355/.436 (119 OPS+) hitter in nearly 3,200 plate appearances -- is the kind of success that forces teams to change the way they evaluate players. Generally speaking, 5-foot-6 middle infielders are not hot commodities. That's why Altuve received only a $10,000 bonus as an amateur player out of Venezuela back in the day.
Right now Altuve is shattering biases that are decades old in scouting circles. Players this small, who lack big time physicality, often get overlooked because they don't project to hit for power. There's also durability concerns and things like that. There's stereotypes have been in place for years and years and years.
Altuve is showing that you can not only be a quality MLB player at 5-foot-6, but you can be an MVP candidate. He's best contact hitter in baseball, he's one of the biggest base-stealing threats in baseball, and now he's one of the top power threats in baseball. Altuve's doing all of that while playing strong defense at a premium up the middle position.
Trout and others (Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Mookie Betts, etc.) are very much in the AL MVP race with seven weeks left to go in the season. Altuve's MVP hopes may come down to whether the Astros make the postseason, which would be a shame, because he's having a remarkable season and has emerged as one of the two or three best players on the planet.