Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve lays down a bunt against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 8-7. Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
Jose Altuve is a very little baseball player, obviously. Everybody can see it but the home-plate umpires, sometimes.
Everything that gets written about Jose Altuve has to acknowledge his height. There's no way around it, just as everything that got written about Randy Johnson or that gets written about Loek Van Mil has to acknowledge their height. Johnson and Van Mil are unusually tall, for baseball players; Altuve is unusually short, for a baseball player. That which is unusual stands to be acknowledged.
With Altuve, it isn't about poking fun, although it isn't entirely not about poking fun. My Firefox doesn't recognize "Altuve" as a word, so I get a red squiggly line underneath. The one recommended substitute is "Altitude". That's hysterical. I'm not going to add Altuve to my Firefox dictionary, just so I can relive this joke over and over. But the thing about Altuve's height is that it makes him all the more impressive. Acknowledging his height is a good thing, for him.
Altuve is the Astros' lone representative in the 2012 All-Star Game, meaning he's the last Astros player to play in the All-Star Game for the National League. He's a middle infielder, he's batting .303, and maybe most remarkably he's slugging .441. This from a guy whose listed height is 5'5. On May 22 he slugged a home run 412 feet against Travis Wood. Altuve isn't just a little guy who can move around in the field and draw some walks -- he's a little guy who can actually hit.
When Chone Figgins was good, it was wild that he was productive. It's similarly wild that Altuve is productive, not because shorter men are feeble, but because shorter men are relatively more feeble than taller men. You see Altuve stand at the plate and you expect a slap hitter, an easy out. He's an All-Star, with better numbers than Brandon Phillips.
I noticed something when I was researching Altuve. He's struck out just 44 times, which isn't much. He's an excellent contact hitter. Of those 44 strikeouts, 24 have been called. Of Altuve's strikeouts this season, 55 percent have been called strikeouts, and nobody in baseball has a higher ratio of called strikeouts.
That caught my eye, and I took to exploring Altuve's strike zone. As a little dude, Altuve ought to have a smaller strike zone than most batters. He also ought to have a lower strike zone than most batters. PITCHf/x sets a strike zone for each plate appearance, and while these strike-zone dimensions are inconsistent and imperfect, it seems to me that Altuve has the lowest average strike zone by that measure, while David Ortiz has the highest. Here's David Ortiz standing beside the plate:
Ortiz is a very big man with legs only slightly bent in his stance. Given that Altuve and Ortiz seem to be at or near opposite extremes, I thought it'd be worthwhile to compare their called strike zones in 2012. First, we look at Jose Altuve:
Now we look at David Ortiz:
The axes are the same. The average PITCHf/x strike-zone dimensions suggest that Altuve's zone should have an upper edge a foot below Ortiz's, and a lower edge half a foot below Ortiz's. It doesn't look like that's what we see. There are differences, but there are not hugely significant differences -- from the looks of things, Altuve and Ortiz have been given strikingly similar strike zones, ignoring horizontal differences that have more to do with handedness than height.
From there, I couldn't help myself, and I started looking at the highest called strikes against Altuve so far this year. Following are the top five, in order of descending height. I'll let the images speak for themselves, mostly.
Those are some high strikes. Of course I isolated the highest strikes, and every batter sees some poor strike calls over the course of a season. But the data suggests that Altuve sees too many high strikes, for a man of his size. Now, you might be someone who would welcome the return of the high-strike call. Plenty of baseball fans believe that today's strike zone isn't big enough. But more important than strike-zone size is strike-zone consistency and fairness, and Altuve shouldn't be getting high-strike calls if other batters aren't.
At the other end, Altuve probably doesn't get enough low-strike calls. His knees are very low to the ground. David Ortiz probably gets too many low strikes. This isn't about Jose Altuve getting absolutely screwed. But it's as if umpires have an idea of the strike zone before the hitters even come to the plate. Umpires are giving Jose Altuve more of an average zone, and less of a zone that's customized for him.
Which I suppose is what we ought to expect, since umpiring is hard work even without having to consider batters of different sizes. Umpires probably have a general idea of what pitches look like around the strike-zone borders, and then they make calls based on those ideas, only somewhat accounting for the individual hitters, maybe.
Anyhoo, we don't need to get into the whole umpire discussion. That's not what I'm going for, certainly not on a Friday afternoon. This is about Jose Altuve, and Jose Altuve's height makes him a most interesting baseball player. For reasons both direct and indirect alike. Altuve's taking a little man's body into a bigger man's game, and he isn't just getting by -- he's flourishing. Sometimes the most brilliant feathers can come from the littlest peacock.