Jose Altuve first put on an Astros uniform as a 17-year-old playing in the Venezuelan Summer League ten years ago. He’d recently persuaded Astros personnel to tender him a professional contract despite concerns over his diminutive frame. The second baseman stands just 5’6”, about eight inches below the MLB average. The Astros handed him a check for $15,000—a drop in the ocean of their budget for international prospects—and silently hoped for a growth spurt. Altuve, perhaps playing with a chip on his shoulder, batted .343 in 64 games that summer.
That performance warranted a promotion to U.S. ball in 2008, where Altuve played for the Rookie League Greeneville Astros in Tennessee. One of the youngest players on the team, he batted .284 and stole eight bases in 40 games. He returned to Greeneville the next summer and hit .324 with 20 doubles and 21 stolen bases in 45 games before another promotion moved him to the New York-Pennsylvania League. Altuve struggled some with the adjustment to better competition, hitting just .250 in 21 games.
He started 2010 in playing for the class-A Legends in Lexington, Kentucky. He batted .308 and socked a career-high 11 home runs in 94 games, then was promoted to the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League. In 31 games as a JetHawk, Altuve hit .276 with four more home runs. He was about three years younger than most of his teammates.
The Astros kept Altuve in Lancaster to start 2011, and he sustained a staggering .408 batting average over 52 games. He was promoted to AA, where he hit .361 in 35 games for the Corpus Christi Hooks. The Astros liked that performance, and brought him all the way up to the big leagues, bypassing AAA altogether, where he hit .276 in 57 games for Houston but showed little patience and less power. Still, he was a 21-year-old playing in the major leagues—that doesn’t happen too often.
Still, Altuve never appeared on a major list of top baseball prospects. Despite his cumulative .327 batting average in the minor leagues, scouts thought that it was only a matter of time before his size caught up to him. 5’6” baseball players aren’t supposed to be elite. Instead, Altuve was labeled as “scrappy.” He played with “grit.” If he was lucky, maybe he could be the next David Eckstein. Or, he could carve out a role on a major league bench for a season or two and retire with a nice MLB pension. It happens to lots of talented prospects.
In 2012, Jose Altuve appeared in 147 games for the Astros and batted .290. He only hit 7 home runs, but he managed to sock 34 doubles. In 2013, Altuve batted .283 with five home runs and 31 doubles. He still lacked patience at the plate, but he was undeniably exceeding expectations.
That’s when he found another gear. From 2014 through 2016, Altuve batted a stunning .331, leading the league in average twice. He averaged 158 games, 15 home runs, and 41 stolen bases. In 2016, his plate discipline numbers nearly doubled–he drew a walk in 8.4% of his plate appearances, and finished third in the AL MVP voting.
In 2017, he was even better. Altuve batted .346, knocking 204 hits in 590 at bats. That mark was tops in the American league—a feat which Altuve has now accomplished in four consecutive seasons. He is the only player in major league history to do so. He hit 24 home runs, matching a career high, and slugged .547, a new high-water mark. He led the Astros to the World Series by hitting .310 in the postseason with 7 home runs, then helped his team defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers to clinch the championship.
Last night, he took the latest step in his storybook career and was named the 2017 AL MVP. It was a landslide victory, with Altuve claiming 27 first-place votes to vanquish young Yankees slugger Aaron Judge (the unanimous pick for AL Rookie of the Year earlier this week).
The best news for Astros fans? At 27, Altuve is just entering his physical prime. He’s steadily added almost 200 points to his slugging percentage over the last five years. In 2017, his OBP cracked .400 for the first time. Oh, and he shares an infield with a couple of guys named Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman. We’re in for another fun ride in 2018.
Featured image by Alex Bierens de Haan, Houston Astros