HOUSTON — Of course the height strikes you first. It’s the price you pay for being a 5-foot-6 professional athlete in a sport that is not horse racing.
The more you learn about Jose Altuve, however, the more another quality strikes you:
Not his actual running speed, although he does have 231 regular-season stolen bases at age 27. Rather, the likely American League Most Valuable Player has displayed an alacrity in adjusting to the major leagues. In excelling at the game’s highest level. In establishing himself as one of the young stars headlining commissioner Rob Manfred’s initiative to rope millennial fans.
Now we’ll see if he can quickly assimilate himself into baseball’s semifinals. On the heels of an outstanding AL Division Series against the Red Sox, Altuve will make his AL Championship Series debut Friday when his Astros play host to the Yankees and their physically opposite AL MVP candidate Aaron Judge at Minute Maid Park.
“I know what’s high on his list is getting to and winning the World Series,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Thursday. “So for me to be able — the last three years — to watch him grow, develop a relationship with him, see how he’s impacted his teammates, hopefully he can add an MVP to that trophy case here this season.
“But he’s exceptional in every way, and a lot of the reasons behind why we have been able to elevate things is how he goes about it and how he impacts this city.”
“He’s an exciting player,” the Yankees’ Brett Gardner said. “He’s a guy that contributes on both sides of the ball. A hundred miles an hour the whole game, for nine innings. I can appreciate that. He plays with a lot of intensity. He’s a big catalyst for that team over there.”
Altuve, who worked out with his teammates Thursday and then blew off reporters, put up a monster 2017 season, arguably the best of his impressive career. He led the AL with 204 hits and a .346 batting average, and he posted an excellent ratio of 84 strikeouts to 58 walks. He made the AL All-Star team for the fifth time. If he prevails over Judge in the MVP vote, it will most likely be due to his consistency; whereas Judge registered massive peaks and valleys, putting up a lowly .680 OPS in August, Altuve excelled through the season, posting a respectable .832 OPS in his worst month, September.
From his physique to his strong contact skills, Altuve serves as a Bizarro Judge. Here’s another way in which the two top MVP candidates differ dramatically: their origin stories.
Judge didn’t fully establish himself until this, his age-25 season, after deliberately climbing the Yankees’ organizational chain.
Altuve arrived at age 21, in 2011. He took, to use the vernacular of Astros officials at the time, the “Express Lane.”
Remember how Judge got his first shot after the 2016 Yankees traded Carlos Beltran to Texas? What Beltran (now Altuve’s teammate with the Astros) was to Judge — the veteran departing to clear a spot — Jeff Keppinger was to Altuve.
The 2011 Astros, a dreadful 31-65 as they approached the non-waivers trade deadline and facing a sale of the team from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane, went into full teardown mode. On July 19, they dealt the former Met Keppinger, a second baseman, to the contending Giants, one of several deals they made that month.
To fill the vacated spots, the Astros’ baseball operations department met and brainstormed. That was when adviser Matt Galante, a baseball lifer who had previously coached with the Mets under Art Howe, came up with the idea of the “Express Lane” — rushing guys without extensive experience at the top minor league levels. At the time of the Keppinger trade, Altuve had played in just 35 games for Double-A Corpus Christi, slashing a great .361/.388/.569, and hadn’t sniffed Triple-A.
“We were concerned not so much about how they would handle moving up as we were about how they would deal with getting moved back down if things didn’t work out,” Ed Wade, then the Astros’ general manager, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “Jose had the makeup and desire to make us think he was someone we could challenge.”
So on July 20, the day after Keppinger got shipped out, Altuve made his big-league debut. He proceeded to slash an interesting .276/.297/.357 while playing solid defense and running the bases well.
On the Express Lane, “We only had to buy a one-way ticket for him,” Wade said, laughing.
He has improved steadily, his height becoming less of a conversation item along the way.
“I’ve been able to have a front-row seat to his growth and his evolution [from] a really good player on some rough teams to an exceptional player on a great team,” Hinch said. “To watch him grow and mature, I’ve seen him become a father for the first time, I’ve seen him speak out in meetings for the first time and be a leader vocally.
“And probably most importantly, I’ve just seen him be the most consistent player in baseball at his craft, at being a good hitter, good defender, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, All-Star, hits leader, batting titles. You name it, he’s done it.”
“Oh, he’s a great player, and he’s been [one] for a number of years here,” Joe Girardi said Thursday. “Obviously, he plays the game the right way. He plays extremely hard.”
Judge, who didn’t blow off the media on Thursday, said he spent some time with Altuve at the All-Star Game in Miami.
“Man, what a great guy,” Judge said. “We see what he does on the baseball field, but the type of person he is, we see the passion he has for the game, it’s pretty fun to watch.”
Before the Astros opened the ALDS with the Red Sox, Altuve said, “I’m coming from a team that lost a hundred games in a row three straight years [2011 through 2013]. We made the playoffs in 2015, we didn’t make it last year and after last year we were a little uncomfortable because we were watching the playoff games from home and we were like, ‘OK, we’re good enough to be in the playoffs.’”
Then Altuve hit three homers in ALDS Game 1 to beat the Red Sox, and he slashed a ridiculous .533/.632/1.133 overall. Once again, he got going immediately.
It falls on the Yankees now to slow down this guy. Everything in Altuve’s history shows that won’t be easy. For the diminutive Altuve, Wade said, “stands head and shoulders above everybody else in baseball.”
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