- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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In a July 12 game against Houston, Bogaerts was playing shallow enough to guard against the bunt when Altuve scorched two doubles to left field. After the second one, Bogaerts glanced over at Houston Astros third base coach Pat Listach with a bewildered look and a hint of exasperation in his voice. Altuve has a knack for surprising corner infielders who check out his 5-foot-5, 170-pound frame and wonder how the ball jumps off his bat with such big-boy velocity.
"Bogaerts looks at me and says, 'How does he hit the ball so hard?'" Listach said, laughing. "Jose almost knocked all his teeth out. The ball was by him before he had a chance to move."
The Astros have attracted attention this season for mega-prospect George Springer's April callup, a failed negotiation with No. 1 draft pick Brady Aiken and a Sports Illustrated cover story that proclaimed them "Your 2017 World Series Champs." It's all about growing pains and incremental steps for general manager Jeff Luhnow in his efforts to produce a winner from a team that's averaged 108 losses over the past three seasons.
But the best and most uplifting story in their midst is a tiny second baseman with 80-grade persistence and a flair for collecting base hits.
Altuve, 24, played in his second All-Star Game last month and became the first player since 1933 to amass 130 hits and 40 stolen bases before the break. He's taking aim at Craig Biggio's franchise record of 210 hits in a season and trying to outlast Robinson Cano, Victor Martinez and others to become the first Astro and the fifth native Venezuelan to win a batting title.
The other four are Andres Galarraga, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera, who is working on a streak of three straight batting crowns with the Detroit Tigers. Cabrera and Altuve both hail from the city of Maracay, home of Dave Concepcion, Bobby Abreu and Elvis Andrus, and they've become pals in recent years. They spent some time last winter hanging out off the field and goofing around playing softball or basketball, with Altuve presumably playing the role of Spud Webb.
"We have a pretty good relationship," Altuve said. "He always tells me, 'You're a good hitter and a good player. Keep it going.' For me to hear that from the best hitter in the big leagues means a lot. In the beginning, when he said that, I kind of pressed. I was like, 'Oh my god, Miguel Cabrera.' Now I appreciate all the support he's given to me."
Hittability is one of several tools possessed by Altuve, who's a sure-handed and steadily improving defender and a major threat on the bases with 45 steals in 51 attempts.
"He's so fast and he's really good at reading the pitcher," said Astros starter Scott Feldman. "He's un-throw-out-able."
When teammates have to invent adjectives to describe a player's impact, he has officially arrived.
Little Big Man
Houston manager Bo Porter grew so tired of hearing Altuve referred to as "diminutive" or "pint-sized," he opted for irony and anointed Altuve "The Big Guy." If follically-impaired Harlem Globetrotters guard Fred Neal could go by the nickname "Curly," why not? Porter is pushing Altuve as an MVP candidate even though the Astros are going nowhere, because he claims "it's scary" where the team would be without its catalytic leadoff man.
"He may look small in stature, but he's the biggest guy on the field," Porter said.
How essential is Altuve to the Astros' success? During a recent homestand against Oakland and Toronto, Houston won five of seven games. In the Astros' two losses, opposing managers Bob Melvin and John Gibbons chose to intentionally walk Altuve rather than pitch to him in pivotal situations.
The obvious question is, how does an undersized curiosity ascend to the role of leading man? Stories abound through the years about Altuve being sent home from a tryout camp only to show up the next day, or having coaches and stadium security guards mistake him for a bat boy. But he's defied stereotypes and characterizations and shown that he has staying power. He's a .297 career hitter in 2,045 major-league plate appearances, so he's long past the experimental stage.
What are the secrets to Altuve's success?
• He's a monument to self-awareness.
Altuve sees an average of 3.16 pitches per plate appearance, the fewest of any big-league regular, but it's not from a lack of plate discipline. Pitchers are inclined to challenge him because he's not a big power threat and his speed allows him to turn a walk into a double or a triple, so he's ready to hack from the first pitch. Coincidentally, he's hitting .427 (44-for-103) on 0-0 counts.
"One of the biggest things at the major-league level is identifying who you are and playing within the confines of who you are," Porter said, "and Jose Altuve knows exactly who he is. He's a line drive guy with gap-to-gap power and an unbelievably short stroke, and he doesn't try to do too much. If you throw him in, he'll pull the ball. If you throw him away, he'll hit it to right. He's not up there trying to manipulate the ball."
• His hand-eye coordination is uncanny.
Altuve swings and misses a meager 4.5 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. Pitchers better be prepared to watch a lot of video if they plan to find any holes in his swing.
"He's an absolute machine," said an AL personnel man. "When you watch him take batting practice, it's a professional BP with a purpose. Beyond the approach and makeup stuff, which can only get you so far, his hitting hands are almost supernatural. The number of pitches, counted by both pitch type and location that he can turn into line drives the other way is mind-boggling."
• He's a born goal-setter.
Listach joined the Astros' coaching staff this season after two years with the Chicago Cubs. It didn't take Altuve long to think of a way in which Houston's new infield instructor could help him attain one of his main career objectives.
"You had Darwin Barney, right?" Altuve said during one of their first talks.
"Yeah," Listach replied.
"He won a Gold Glove," Altuve said.
"Yeah," Listach confirmed.
"I want one," Altuve said.
"Well, let's get to work," Listach said.
• He's stronger than he looks.
Altuve appeared in 152 games in 2012 and has missed only three of Houston's 116 games this season, so he's shown the stamina to survive the dog days.
"I asked our strength coach and he said, 'Pound for pound, he's the strongest guy on the team,'" Feldman said.
The whole package
Personality profiles of Altuve invariably focus on his membership in that rare fraternity of baseball shrimps who've made the grade. Former Royals shortstop Freddie Patek is a natural historical comparison, and David Eckstein and Dustin Pedroia are more recent Lilliputians whose résumés were more impressive than their stature.
"Those guys could eat soup off his head, though," Listach said of Altuve, who's a good 2-3 inches shorter than Pedroia.
Before games, Altuve can be seen chatting it up in the middle infield and flitting here and there with his cap resting high on his head and the bill at an upward angle. He displays a joy for the game that can't be faked, and his enthusiasm makes him a natural fan favorite at Minute Maid Park and on the road.
But a zest for the game is a more potent attribute when combined with a natural work ethic and a desire to achieve. Altuve lost 12 pounds over the winter and showed up in Houston in January ready to get a jump on spring training. By all accounts, he has become a more discerning base stealer and a more savvy and opportunistic defender while continuing to evolve as a hitter.
That's a welcome development for the Astros, who signed him to a four-year, $12.5 million extension last summer that includes a $6 million club option for 2018 and a $6.5 million option for 2019. Along with his numerous other attributes, Altuve is a blessing to the franchise's bottom line.
The thought of settling in as a veteran presence appeals to him, as Springer and Jon Singleton get established and Carlos Correa and the team's other prospects make their way through the minors.
"I want to keep playing until I'm 40," Altuve said. "That would be nice."
As the Astros and corner infielders around the majors have discovered, it's wise to take the Big Guy at his word.
While the Astros continue to be miles away from being a contender, their best and most uplifting story is a tiny second baseman who has a flair for collecting hits.