Is Jose Altuve Still a Worthy First-Round Pick? (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Jose Altuve quietly stepped into our fantasy lineups and human hearts in 2012, when he posted an 80-run, 33-steal campaign. He then leaped to fantasy superstardom in 2014 with 56 steals and a .341 batting average. After that, he started adding double-digit homers to his name, and he became a consensus top-three player for the next three years. Trophies were won, jerseys were purchased, smack talk was thrown down. Life was pretty good for an Altuve owner.
However, the diminutive second baseman hit a rough patch in 2018. While still hitting well above .300 for the first three months of the season, he only had nine homers and 14 stolen bases through June. Young guns like Ozzie Albies were aiming to take the top spot away from Altuve. In late July, he came down with a right knee injury, which required him to go on the now-called Injured List for almost a month, and finished with just 13 homers, 84 runs, and 17 stolen bases to go with a .316 average. Safe to say, that wasn’t what was expected from the consensus number two overall pick. Finishing as the sixth-best second baseman in standard roto was a bit disappointing, to say the least.
Since then, he had surgery to remedy his right knee, and the experts are clearly divided on the 28-year-old. As of February 26, Altuve is ranked as the 11th hitter in FantasyPros’ ECR with a pretty wide range in ranks. His minimum is six overall, and this does not include the guys over at CBS, who have preached to their listeners that Altuve can be taken in the top five due to position scarcity. A handful of experts have him in the mid-20s, so it’s a very divided community indeed. It seems that typical draft rooms (especially recently) have split this difference, resulting in an ADP of 13. Why exactly has Altuve fallen from grace, and what can we expect in 2019?
2018 Year in Review
Of course, the main thing the fantasy community remembers from Altuve’s 2018 is that he was injured and had surgery after not looking quite right in the playoffs. On The Athletic, Inside Injuries (subscription required) did an in-depth review of his injury, which technically was a “right knee patella avulsion fracture.” That’s not something I ever need to read again, but at least it’s not as bad as Jose Abreu’s 2018 injury.
Anyway, Inside Injuries rated injury risks as low, elevated, or high, and you can probably guess that Altuve did not sit at “low” after that nasty injury and subsequent surgery. He currently sits at “elevated,” which is better than “high.” In addition, they rated his health performance factor as poor, which indicates that they expect Altuve to be a worse player after his injury.
As a result of the surgery, the Astros will slowly ramp Altuve up to get ready for Opening Day. It will be imperative to monitor how Altuve is doing–not only during spring training games (turning double plays, hitting for power, stealing bases) but also looking for updates on next-day soreness and how quickly he is recovering. While still in his prime, Altuve’s small frame has been beaten up quite a bit over the years, and one has to wonder if his aging curve will accelerate more than the average superstar.
While we can’t expect Altuve to swipe another 50 bags, he still has the potential to get 25-30 with his classic high average and double-digit homers. However, we also need to understand that his games cap is likely at 150-152. With that, let’s dive into how Altuve’s batted-ball profile compared to his historical levels, and what that can tell us about 2019 expectations.
Batted-Ball Profile and Plate Discipline
Of course, Altuve is known for his elite contact profile and above-average plate discipline. While he doesn’t post a double-digit walk rate, he is regularly between eight and nine percent, and his strikeout rate was at less than 10 percent … until 2018, that is. While a 13.2% K rate is hardly concerning, it has risen steadily since 2014, when it was a measly 7.5 percent. Not coincidentally, this is when Altuve started to hit more homers, so the tradeoff definitely worked in his favor.
His O-Swing of 33.3% and swing percentage of 47.3% is a tick above the league average, but he compensates by doing a fantastic job at putting wood on the ball. His 91% Z-Contact percentage, 83.6% contact percentage, and a tiny 7.5% swinging-strike rate makes him one of the best at getting on base. However, these percentages also represent a drop in performance from 2017, which is some cause for concern. This decline in plate discipline is extremely evident in last season’s second half, when he posted a 15.8% K rate, resulting in a 30-point drop in on-base percentage and over a 100-point drop in OPS. Was this likely due to the knee injury? Yes, but we need to confirm if that was the sole reason behind his poor second half.
Overall, the underlying batted-ball metrics show that Altuve was a similar hitter in 2018 compared to 2017, if not slightly better. He showed a near four percent increase in line-drive rate, which offset his near three percent decline in fly-ball rate and a 3.5 percent drop in infield fly-ball rate. Look a little deeper, however, and you find some holes. The biggest takeaway from this entire article is that his fly-ball rate declined 10 percent in the second half while his ground-ball rate increased to 52.6 percent. With Altuve playing through a knee injury that robbed him of power and speed, it’s no wonder he tanked in the second half.
The salt on the wound is that his hard-hit rate dropped nine percent, which resulted in a seven percent increase in his soft-hit rate. Even if you are the biggest Altuve stan, his expected stats were even worse than his actual results. That knee injury really took a toll, ya think? Of course, we are dealing with a small sample (just 576 pitches seen), and bear in mind that he missed a ton of August with the injury. Altuve’s sprint speed has been declining ever-so-slightly since 2016, and for how many bases the man steals, he sits at just the 78th percentile in sprint speed. Stealing bases, like most things in life, is a choice, and it remains to be seen how this injury impacts Altuve’s running tendencies.
Another key item is how he performed against certain pitches. His pVal against fastballs stands out like an eyesore. In 2016 and 2017, he was just shy of a 30 pVAL, which is phenomenal. This number shrunk all the way to 3.5 in 2018. If Altuve was having trouble starting his swing due to his injury, it makes perfect sense that he had trouble making solid contact with fastballs. Despite the slightly declining stats in terms of plate discipline even before 2018, it’s safe to say Altuve wasn’t his best self due to this injury.
I’ve admittedly painted a relatively bleak picture of Altuve so far, but he still has a ton going for him. Mainly, his teammates. Current first rounder Alex Bregman is projected to hit in front of him, and former first-rounder Carlos Correa is projected to hit behind him. Newcomer Michael Brantley will be happy to drive him home from the fifth spot, and Yuli Gurriel and Tyler White are there to clean up any baserunners left behind. Hitting in the third spot is the best way to generate a high combination of runs and RBI, and with the Astros projected to score the second-most runs in baseball, Altuve’s accumulation stats will be sky-high if he can stay healthy.
The downside is that in a very average division — the Mariners and Rangers might be just be the second and third-worst teams in the AL (sorry, Baltimore, you still stink worse than a Vegas casino) — the Astros may have more opportunities to rest Altuve down the stretch when he’s needed most in fantasy. It’s hard to plan for that, of course, but it’s something to factor into his plate appearances. Of course, in that average division, he faces an even more remarkably average assembly of starting pitchers to do damage against. In fact, this division is likely the second-worst in baseball behind the AL Central in terms of pitching. Let’s go.
Minute Maid Park is a neutral park, as Eno Sarris of The Athletic pointed out in his “homers per High Drive” article. This means Altuve’s power stroke is not impacted much by his home park. He does go to Globe Life in Arlington nine times a year, but that is easily offset with the 18 times he has to play in Angel Stadium or the Oakland Coliseum, two pitcher-centric parks.
What I haven’t yet discussed is position scarcity. From top to bottom, second base is likely the weakest non-catcher position in fantasy this season. Sure, guys like Javier Baez, Whit Merrifield, and Albies are taken within the first five rounds, and Gleyber Torres will be in their boat next year, but the position really falls off a cliff after that. Altuve is the only second baseman worth considering in the first round, and rightly so. His high floor should be coveted on draft day, especially at a position where premium shares are few.
It will be tough to pass on Altuve at the back end of the first round and hope Merrifield is still there at the end of the third. Position scarcity clearly plays a role in where to draft Altuve. The deeper the league (15 teams, or leagues where middle infield spots are started), he should be considered a first-rounder, easy. In shallower, 10 or 12-team leagues, there are probably safer players to buy since you don’t have to reach as far into the second-base pool. It’s hard to win a league in the first round, but you can certainly lose it with a poorly timed injury or reduced performance due to an injury.
All-in-all, you know you’re going to get a league-leading batting average with Altuve, which is super helpful in both points and roto leagues. More so, you know you’re getting great counting stats since he is hitting in the heart of a top-tier lineup. With the Astros’ rotation not nearly as good as last year, they will have to pound their opponents into submission with runs, and Altuve figures to be an integral part in that. That leaves us with his most two volatile categories: homers and steals.
Altuve is in a different stratosphere than Brian Dozier, who also had a knee injury last year. We saw his overall stats, and specifically power, decline last year due to this injury. Dozier is much older than Altuve, so his range of outcomes is a lot wider than Altuve’s. However, having the right knee for a right-handed batter near 100% is crucial to generating power, as the force behind a righty’s swing is generated from the back leg. If he is not able to generate double-digit power, much less 20 homers, his value looks more like a second rounder.
If Altuve isn’t generating power due to the knee, he likely won’t be stealing as many bases either. In this lineup, he doesn’t really have to, and the ‘Stros may choose to play it safe. A conservative floor is .310/15/95/80/20. His ceiling, however, looks something like .330/20/110/100/40. Those numbers easily best a guy like Trea Turner, who is often going in the middle of the first round.
If your draft is coming up in the next week, it may be wise to pass on a guy like Altuve in the first round. However, if you are reading later in March and Altuve has been on track with his rehab, he should be taken in the first round without question, especially in roto or head-to-head categories leagues.