Jose Altuve, the Houston Astros' embattled second baseman, is having a rough go of it in the field right now. The prevailing diagnosis is a case of the yips. At any rate, Altuve's sudden inability to make routine throws cost the Astros dearly in Games 2 and 3 of the American League Championship Series and played an outsized role in helping the Tampa Bay Rays grab a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
In Game 4, however, with the Astros on the brink of elimination, Altuve did a fine job redeeming himself, albeit in the batter's box, blasting a solo shot off right-hander Tyler Glasnow in his first at-bat of the game to give Houston a first-inning lead. It felt like deja vu: Altuve put the Astros on the board early in Game 3, too, with a first-inning homer off left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, a moment eventually overshadowed by his pivotal sixth-inning error - his third of the series - that keyed the Rays' decisive five-run outburst.
Altuve's contributions in Game 4 didn't end there. He also stroked a run-scoring, opposite-field double off Glasnow in the third and ended up driving in half of his club's runs Wednesday in an eventual 4-3 victory that kept the Astros' season alive. And while his defensive meltdown has obscured anything else he's done to this point in the playoffs, Altuve has actually been on fire all October.
Despite suddenly morphing into his team's biggest liability in the field, Altuve has been Houston's second-best hitter this postseason, behind only the otherworldly Carlos Correa, and the 2017 American League MVP has very much resembled his old self following a miserable regular season at the plate. (Insert obligatory acknowledgment of the Astros' sign-stealing scandal.) Through 10 postseason games - coming against three teams with elite pitching staffs - Altuve is hitting .333/.447/.744 with five home runs, one double, 10 RBIs, and as many walks as strikeouts (seven). And in four contests against Tampa Bay, Altuve has been especially hot, going 7-for-17 (.412) with a 1.474 OPS.
Eight weeks after asking to be moved down the Astros' batting order, Altuve is producing at a superstar level again, at least offensively, and while drawing conclusions from a 10-game sample is dangerous, there's no disputing that he simply looks different than he did throughout a truncated regular season that yielded career worsts in batting average (.219), on-base percentage (.286), slugging percentage (.344), strikeout rate (18.5%), and wRC+ (77).
He's hitting the ball harder. He's chasing pitches out of the zone less. He's missing pitches inside the zone less. More specifically, though, Altuve is owning the upper-third of the strike zone again, which is something he excelled at prior to 2020. Over the previous half-decade, in fact, nobody in the majors hammered high pitches like Altuve, who hit .323 with an .888 OPS from 2015 through 2019 (capturing two AL batting titles in the process) thanks in part to his ability to handle pitches above the belt. Altuve's .443 weighted on-base average on pitches in the upper third of the zone trumped everyone else with at least 250 plate appearances over that five-season span, according to Baseball Savant.
Highest wOBA, upper third of the zone, 2015-19
For whatever reason, though, Altuve stopped punishing pitches at the top of the zone in 2020. The 30-year-old managed only a .290 wOBA on elevated strikes during the regular season, and that number actually should've been lower based on the quality of the contact he made. However, Altuve has been back to his old ways since the start of the postseason, destroying pitches at the top of the zone - like, for instance, this fastball from Rays left-hander Blake Snell in the ALCS opener - to the tune of a .608 wOBA (with a no-less-reassuring .498 expected wOBA).
Beyond that, Altuve has also enjoyed more success this postseason against breaking balls, which was another skill that abandoned him during the regular season. Prior to 2020, Altuve had always been a good-not-great breaking-ball hitter, but he simply couldn't do anything against spinning stuff this year, whiffing on a career-worst 35.7% of the breaking balls he saw while mustering a batting average of just .135 against them. His slugging percentage was the same. And his expected numbers weren't much better. In fact, no regular struggled more against curveballs and sliders in 2020 than Altuve, who, unsurprisingly, saw more of them than ever before.
Lowest wOBA vs. breaking balls, 2020 (min. 50 PA)
|Player||wOBA||xwOBA||Average exit velocity (MPH)|
This postseason, however, Altuve has been picking up breaking stuff much better, cutting his whiff rate down to just 10.7% while also squaring them up with more regularity: His playoff wOBA versus breaking balls sits at .304, and two of his five hardest-hit balls against breaking stuff in 2020 have come in October, one of them being this double off Glasnow in Game 4:
Sample size notwithstanding, Altuve has looked more like himself over the last 10 days than he did over the previous two months. And it's nothing short of remarkable, moreover, that Altuve has continued to rake against Tampa Bay, with its thresher of a staff, while also wrestling with the torment of his defensive blunders in Games 2 and 3: No other Astros regular owns an OPS above .775 for the series thus far except for Michael Brantley, and none are carrying the psychological burden that Altuve is into the box.
Will Altuve continue to undercut his team in the field for as long as it's still alive? That remains to be seen. In his defense, he did convert each of his chances in Game 4 and notably made a solid throw to second base on a potential game-ending double-play ball in the bottom of the ninth with the Rays rallying. That bodes well. (Interestingly, Astros manager Dusty Baker rebuffed the notion of using Altuve as his designated hitter in Game 4.)
In any event, the Astros at least have to be encouraged by his apparent return to form at the plate, and while staging a successful comeback of this magnitude against the Rays seems highly improbable, the Astros have a much better chance of pulling it off with Altuve swinging the bat like he is.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.