Thursday, May 3, 2012
Jose Altuve can win a batting title -- in 2012
By David Schoenfield
Jose Altuve is off to a great start for the Astros, hitting .358 through May 2.
Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is a 5-foot-5 hitting machine. His strike zone is the size of an iPhone. He looks like Dustin Pedroia's little brother. Opposing pitchers may confuse him for the bat boy.
Until he steps to the plate, that is, and rings a base hit past their earlobe or stings a double into the gap or lofts a liner down the right-field line. He doesn't turn 22 for a few days, but Altuve is hitting .358. He's not a big home run threat, but he does have 11 extra-base hits. In other words, the kid can flat-out hit and I'm going to make a bold statement. He can win a batting title ... and maybe as soon as this season.
He's not good enough, you say? Hey, he hit .389 in the minors last season. Plus I like that he's showing a little more patience this season. He's not a big walker, but his walk rate in 57 games as a rookie last season was just 2.1 percent (five walks in 234 plate appearances). This year, it's up to 7.6 percent. He's dropped his percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone from 43.7 percent to 24.3 percent. So far, only Ichiro Suzuki has a higher overall contact percentage than Altuve. So when he swings, he makes contract. He's improving his pitch recognition. He's hitting .358.
He's too young or too inexperienced, you say? Well, Alex Rodriguez turned 21 years old in 1996 when he hit .358 to win the AL batting crown. Al Kaline won a batting title when he was 20. Rod Carew was 23 when he won his first title. Wade Boggs was older but in his first full season when he hit .361 in 1983 to win the AL crown. Don Mattingly's only batting championship came in his first full season. So it can be done.
It will likely take a mark in the .330 to .345 range. Six of the past seven NL batting leaders hit between .335 and .344 (the exception being Chipper Jones' .364 mark in 2008). Can Altuve do that? Am I nuts for thinking so? Am I nuts for suggesting he'll end up with a higher batting average than Albert Pujols at season's end? (See poll.)