- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The numbers show that Altuve is having a significant impact in his first full major league season. He ranks among the game's top five second basemen in batting average (.309), hits (42) and OPS (.802). The Elias Sports Bureau reports that Altuve recently became the first Astros player to collect 36 hits through the team's first 25 games since Craig Biggio did it in 2004.
Every line-drive single prompts Houston manager Brad Mills to reflect upon his first encounter with Altuve. The Astros were making a Grapefruit League trip in 2010, and Mills, new to the organization and unfamiliar with the system, was short on players. He needed a second baseman, third baseman and outfielder to round out the travel roster, so he put out an all-points bulletin for warm bodies. Shortly thereafter, Altuve walked through the clubhouse door ready to play.
"He looked like the uniform was too big for him," Mills said. "I looked at him and said, 'Holy smokes, I guess he's a second baseman.' Then I put him in the game and he was unbelievable. We kept playing him and I kept telling everybody how great he was. And people kept telling me, 'He's just an organizational guy.' I said, 'Well, he's a pretty good organizational guy.'"
True, 92 games and 357 career at-bats constitute a small sample size, and time will tell whether Altuve is more a 5-foot-5, 155-pound curiosity or a player who'll enjoy a long and successful run in the majors. In a best-case scenario, he'll wind up closer to Freddie Patek (5,530 career at-bats) than Harry Chappas (184) in the annals of baseball's Lollipop Guild.
In the meantime, Altuve is winning converts in Houston and around the National League for his hustle and oversized ticker. Elementary schoolers cheered wildly when he appeared alongside Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton on the team's winter caravan, and Houston's Latin community has already embraced him. Altuve is also popular with his fellow Astros because of his work ethic and team-first mentality. Houston first baseman Carlos Lee, a Panama native, refers to Altuve as his son, or hijo.
"Anytime you have a guy with a heart like that, everybody's gotta fall in love with him," Mills said.
The odds against Altuve are long because so few players of his stature have had a lasting impact in the majors. Rabbit Maranville and Wee Willie Keeler are Hall of Famers, but most of baseball's small fries are fringe players or cup-of-coffee types. The Lee Sinins Encyclopedia's list of 50 players 5-foot-5 and under ends with Jess Cortazzo and Reuben Ewing, each of whom recorded a single major league at-bat in the early 1900s.
Altuve is oblivious to the odds in the same way that David Eckstein, Dustin Pedroia and other undersized overachievers were oblivious. His passion for the game outweighs his vital statistics.
"I feel like I'm a normal guy," Altuve said. "I'm the same size as everybody else when I'm on the field."
Baseball has been an obsession for Altuve since his boyhood in Maracay, Venezuela, the home of fellow big leaguers Davey Concepcion, Bobby Abreu and Miguel Cabrera. His father, Carlos, worked for a chemical company, and his mother, Lastenia, was a housewife. Altuve played a lot of shortstop as a youth, so his favorite major leaguer was Omar Vizquel.
If the Woody Allen line that "80 percent of success is showing up" is true, Altuve is living proof that the other 20 percent is refusing to take no for an answer. Altuve attended an Astros tryout camp when he was 16 years old, and the organizers told him not to bother reporting the second day. So the next morning he rolled out of bed, grabbed his glove and spikes and showed up anyway.
Why doubt this guy? If I do that, he's going to go prove me wrong just like he's proven everybody else wrong his entire career. More power to him. God bless the guy. Let him just keep going.
”-- Astros manager Brad Mills on Altuve
"The first day, there were only two guys watching everybody," Altuve said. "I heard the next day there were going to be like 10 guys. So I thought, 'Maybe those two guys didn't like me, but the rest of the guys would.' I don't know why, but I took that like my last opportunity."
The Astros conceded the inevitable and signed him, and Altuve hit .307 over his first four professional seasons amid yawns from the scouting establishment. Baseball America ranked him 28th among Houston's top 30 prospects in 2011, but Altuve made it to the All-Star Futures Game and singled and doubled in three at-bats before an array of talent evaluators in Phoenix.
In July, the Astros traded Jeff Keppinger to San Francisco. With veteran Bill Hall slumping, they summoned Altuve from the minors even though he was 21 years old and had a total of 144 at-bats above Class A ball. Altuve batted .346 in his first 21 games and hit an inside-the-parker against San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner for his first big league home run.
But Altuve's production tailed off drastically once pitchers learned they didn't have to throw him strikes. Altuve walked five times in 234 plate appearances and averaged a scant 3.11 pitches per plate appearance. So he arrived at spring training with a mandate to be more selective, and took part in a series of pitch recognition drills devised by Mills and hitting coach Mike Barnett to help him refine his strike zone.
The early results are encouraging. Altuve is averaging 3.56 pitches per plate appearance and he's already drawn nine walks. That's still not great, but opponents have at least discovered they can't just bounce curveballs and throw fastballs at his eyes and expect him to hack.
"When you see guys that are able to adjust back after the opponent adjusts to them, it's a sign to me that the guy has a chance to stay around for a long time," Barnett said. "He can have a lengthy career. He's not just a flash in the pan."
When pitchers groove one, Altuve has the ability to make them pay. He has two home runs this season, including a 387-foot opposite field shot off Milwaukee's Randy Wolf at Miller Park. Houston bench coach Joe Pettini refers to Altuve as "Toy Cannon II" in homage to former Astros outfielder Jimmy Wynn, and some of his teammates call him "Mighty Mouse."
Altuve has more extra-base hits (12) than Jose Bautista, Prince Fielder, Michael Young and Mike Napoli have this season. Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie, who played with Pedroia in Boston, sees one notable point of comparison between the two second basemen.
"They both have superior hand-eye coordination," Lowrie said. "You can just tell from the at-bats that [Altuve] has. He always finds the barrel and he has a knack for finding holes and getting hits."
Altuve has five errors at second base this year, but his defense is generally regarded as a plus. He has the agility and footwork to turn a consistent double play, a strong arm and first-rate baseball instincts. During a recent St. Louis-Houston game, Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay hit a looper to the right side. Altuve noticed that Jay wasn't running hard out of the box, so he let the ball drop and flipped to Lowrie, who proceeded to turn a 4-6-3 double play. One out later, Houston closer Brett Myers notched the save.
Altuve's baserunning is also an asset, despite his average speed. He's stolen six bases in seven attempts this season and doesn't lack for confidence.
"He wants to go every time he gets on base," Mills said. "It's like he thinks he's invisible. I'll say, 'Wait a minute. You might be little, but they still see you. So be careful.'"
#27 Second Baseman
Every day provides a new twist to Altuve's major league odyssey. One of the most entertaining pitcher-batter matchups in recent memory came on May 2, when Altuve popped out against Mets reliever Jon Rauch, who stands 6-foot-11. Astros color commentator Jim Deshaies joked that Altuve stepped to the plate, looked out at Rauch and declared, "I will smite thee."
His size notwithstanding, Altuve has plenty of stamina. Last year he logged 391 plate appearances in the minors, 234 in Houston and 273 more for Magallanes in the Venezuelan winter league before calling it quits. He still woke up the morning after plate appearance No. 898 and felt antsy and unfulfilled because there was no game on the schedule.
Altuve appeared in 32 of Houston's first 33 games before Mills rested him Sunday against Pittsburgh. Altuve spent much of the game walking up and down the dugout with a bat in his hands. He wanted to stay mentally prepared in case the Astros needed him to pinch-hit. But he also seemed to think that if he kept appearing in Mills' line of sight, the manager might eventually relent and put him in the game.
Altuve has already batted first, second, third, sixth and eighth in the Houston batting order this season. Long term, he is probably best suited for the No. 8 hole or the second spot, where Eckstein and Placido Polanco thrived for much of their careers. They both had their early detractors, too, but Eckstein won two rings as a starting shortstop and Polanco just notched his 2,000th career hit.
"Why doubt this guy?" Mills said. "He's been able to do everything he has wanted to do in baseball, so who am I to doubt him? If I do that, he's going to go prove me wrong just like he's proven everybody else wrong his entire career. More power to him. God bless the guy. Let him just keep going."
Even if the Astros released him tomorrow, chances are Altuve would show up for the game anyway. At Minute Maid Park, where a locomotive churns above the left-field wall in celebration of home runs by the home team, it seems only fitting that Houston has its very own Little Engine That Could.