Jose Altuve is Defying Baseball’s Evolution

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At 5’6, Jose Altuve small stature and production is a sight to behold

In 1912, what would be known as the International Association of Athletics Federation recognized the first record in the 100 meters for men in the field of Olympics’ athletics. Donald Lippincott, on July 6, 1912, became the first man to hold an official record on the discipline with a time of 10.2 seconds from start to finish. He measured 5’10’’ and 159 lbs. It wasn’t until 1946 – 34 years later – that a man broke the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters. James Ray Hines did it at 6’0’’ and 179 lbs. Now fast-forward to 2009 and look up a name: Usain Bolt. There is no one faster on Earth. The Jamaican set the 100 meters world record (9.69 seconds) in Berlin holding a size of 6’5’’ and 207 lbs. I don’t think it is hard to see the evolution of the athlete’s body here. We, as human beings, are becoming taller and stronger, physically superior each year. At least some.

While we can’t compare the MLB and baseball as is with Olympic athletes and the demands of track and field, the evolution of sportsmen have been parallel to some extent between both fields. Look at this season’s Yankee sensation, Aaron Judge. He’s huge. He’s a specimen of his own, truly unique in his size and power. Basically, he’s what we may call the evolution of the baseball player made real. Given that we have height and weight data from 1871 to 2017 provided by Baseball-Reference.com, we can plot the evolution of both the height and weight of MLB players over the past 146 years. Here are the results:

Unsurprising, if anything. As we could expect, small baseball players populated the majors during the XIX century and the first third of the XX one, only to get reduced to a minimum that has never got past three active players of 67 inches or less for the past 61 years. On the contrary, players taller than 78 inches started to appear prominently in the 60’s and 70’s to reach their most-active peak in 2011 with 72 players spread over multiple MLB rosters. The weight of ballplayers tells a similar story, as players tended to be lighter in the early days of the game than from the 70’s onward. Heavier players began to be the norm at around the mid-to-late 90’s.

But even with as clear a trend as this is, there are always outliers out there. And in this concrete case of player size, Jose Altuve is defying the rules of evolution by no small margins. At 5’6’’, the Venezuelan is the shortest active MLB player and started painting his path to the majors by signing with Houston for a laughable $15,000 international bonus. This comes after the Astros rejected him for being too short. This happened in 2007, and by 2011, Jose Altuve was already playing in the MLB and finishing his rookie season with an 0.7 bWAR (good for 5th-best among 21 years old-or-less rookies, tied with the eventual Rookie of the Year, Mike Trout). By his second season, Altuve made the All-Star game, became a staple in Houston’s second base position, and posted a 1.4 bWAR. From that point on he’s had seasons valued at 1.0, 6.1, 4.5, 7.6 and 6.2 bWAR. The next table includes the 20+ bWAR – during their first seven seasons playing in the majors – players of height 5’6’’ or smaller the MLB has seen since 1871.

Look at the debut season of all those players. Of the eight that made the list, two are from the XIX century and five from 1908 to 1941. This is, the closest “small” player with a 20+ bWAR during his first seven seasons of play to Jose Altuve is from more than 75 years ago –and Altuve’s yet to finish the 2017 season, which will probably enlarge his bWAR total–.

Focusing on the 2017 season, a total of 1105 position players and pitchers have generated offensive statistical lines and accrued bWAR values by Baseball-Reference.com. Here’s how they are distributed in terms of height/bWAR:

It is not hard to see how the average MLB player holds a height of around 72 inches (6’0’’), varying from 69 to 76 in most of the cases. There are outliers that are way taller (Chris Young, Alex Meyer, Dellin Betances) and way smaller (Tony Kemp, Alexi Amarista); and if we add bWAR to the equation, then there is Jose Altuve. Yes, Altuve is the blue dot on the chart, at the bottom right part of it. Not only is he the shortest player of the league, but he’s also the most valuable at this point (6.2 bWAR by Sunday, August 6) and by a good margin over his closer rivals Andrelton Simmons (5.7), Paul Goldschmidt (5.5), Aaron Judge (5.1), and Mookie Betts and Anthony Rendon (both 5.0).

Not just happy with that, Altuve is leading the league in hits (151, with just an 11.9 K% –16th-best among qualified hitters–), batting average (.365), OPS+ (176) and total bases (238). He has improved in virtually every statistical category during the current season, participated in his fourth consecutive All-Star game, led the MVP race in the AL and he’s on pace to get also his fourth Silver Slugger award at the second base position. Even with all that, the likes of Judge and Trout are coming and finishing the year strongly, and there are no guarantees for Jose to become the first Venezuelan to win the MVP since Miguel Cabrera did it five years ago in 2012.

All in all, and looking at how his top-rivals stack up in terms of size and production, their numbers could be somehow expected. What Altuve is doing at his size, though, not that much. Analysts tell us that we currently live in the era of the strikeout and that of that of the home run resurrection. Yet, Jose is determined to turn back the clock and make us all appreciate the wonders of small ballplayers roaming the majors’ fields. Appreciate it while you can because what he’s doing is truly unique in the history of the sport and its evolution expectations, although it doesn’t seem like nothing will be stopping Jose “Gigante” Altuve anytime soon.

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