Wouldn’t it be something if the shortest player in the majors who happens to be on the team with the longest active streak of losing seasons actually wound up winning Most Valuable Player this year? It sounds crazy, but it’s not. Not the way sparkplug Jose Altuve, the huge-impact-in-a-tiny-package force that is driving his surprising AL West-leading Houston Astros, is going.
Altuve, who had something of a cult following upon breaking into the bigs in 2011 purely for his specs (5’6″, 165) isn’t exactly new to the spotlight. The attention he has been getting more recently is well-deserved for much more than his height (or lack thereof).
The just-turned 25-year-old enjoyed a full-on breakout season in 2014, when he led the sport in both batting average (.341) and hits (225) while stealing more bases (56) than all but speedster Dee Gordon (64). Altuve also ranked 14th among AL position players in wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.
“If he is on a team that’s playing in a pennant race, you’re looking at a guy that you’ve got to give MVP votes to,” Oakland Athletics skipper Bob Melvin said of Altuve last September, per Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle. “He does everything. He’s just one of the better players of the game.”
The two-time All-Star second baseman did all that amid the Astros going just 70-92—their sixth consecutive sub-.500 campaign—which is about the only reason Altuve finished merely 13th in AL MVP voting.
The start of 2015 has gone much the same for Altuve—and yet so very different for Houston. That’s a good combination for him to jump up the MVP ranks as a dark-horse candidate.
While Altuve is hitting .319/.374/.466 with a league-best 14 steals and an fWAR among the top 20 AL position players (1.7) so far, the 26-14 Astros have the best record in the Junior Circuit entering play Wednesday.
For as much as the MVP is an individual award, it also carries some context in terms of team performance, too. As Altuve found out last year, it’s hard to be on a losing team and be a real MVP threat. On the other hand, being on a winning team—or at least a relevant one—tends to boost a player’s case.
Should Houston be able to hang around into September, in large part to Altuve, he’ll be rewarded for it.
Another element that often results in more MVP love? Power. It’s no secret that voters are suckers for standout totals in homers and RBI. For instance, was it only coincidence that Mike Trout didn’t get the award until last year when he hit the third-most homers in the AL and led the league in RBI?
While Altuve is never going to approach the league leaders in either stat, the fact that a hitter who last year set career highs with seven home runs and 59 RBI already has five of the former and 24 of the latter shows he’s capable of putting up louder numbers in categories that draw votes.
Still, baseball likes its MVPs to be hitters with more than a little power, like Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Buster Posey, Joey Votto or Ryan Braun. To wit, the last position player to win the hardware who didn’t reach the 20-homer mark was Dustin Pedroia, who hit 17 in 2008.
The only other MVP to fall shy of 20 long balls this century? Ichiro Suzuki, who managed only eight in 2001.
But if Altuve keeps this kind of performance up—and so do the Astros—he’s going to have quite the narrative driving his candidacy.
Also in his corner is the fact that the sport has come to appreciate defense much more over the past handful of years. And Altuve has gone from a subpar fielder to a strong one, particularly this season, whether ranging to his left:
..or to his right:
Again, Altuve is getting better, which is something that will resonate with voters, too. As if to prove as much, he has yet to make an error through his first 190 chances over 40 games.
Put it all together, and this is a special player in the middle of another special individual season.
The difference? This time, the team through the first quarter of the campaign looks capable of sticking in—or at least around—the playoff picture, which would go a long way toward enhancing Altuve‘s end-of-year award stock despite a profile and skill set that isn’t typical of a traditional MVP.
On second thought, maybe Altuve‘s MVP case isn’t all that dark-horse-like after all.
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