Even during a rare drought, José Altuve is good enough to pull water out of nothing when he’s not even putting the ball in play.
The Astros’ diminutive giant proved as much yet again Sunday when he drew a walk to plate a run. That RBI wasn’t nearly as thrilling as the ones that have come from the home run swing that has defined Altuve’s early success this season.
Although the six-time All-Star heads into the Astros’ homestand Monday on a mini 0-for-8 slump, his first month of the season has been defined by a surprising home run surge.
Altuve, as the humble Venezuelan has been prone to do throughout his career, downplays his recent power surge. Yet, the numbers don’t lie. After only 21 games, he is already a third of a way toward tying his career-high of 24 home runs and more than halfway toward the 13 he hit out of the yard last year.
With eight home runs so far this season, he has surpassed the seven he hit in each of the first two seasons he earned All-Star nods, 2012 and 2014.
“When I go to home plate, I’ve got a plan to look for a good pitch to hit, to try to put the ball in play,” he told La Vida Baseball in Oakland recently.
Altuve’s approach at the plate has been one of the best in baseball since his debut in 2011, considering he was the American League batting champ in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
He is the only Astros player to have won a batting title, which is an impressive feat considering Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell played for the franchise.
Altuve led the AL in hits with 225 in 2014, 200 in 2015, 216 in 2016 and 204 in 2017 to become the first player in Astros history to lead his league in hits four times.
Despite all that contact, Altuve has never hit more than 24 home runs in a season. He set that career high in 2016 and then tied it in 2017, the year he won the AL MVP Award.
He crushed six of his home runs while hitting home runs in five consecutive games from April 8-14, when he tied for the second longest home run game streak in Astros history.
“Hitting home runs on many days in a row, as I did recently, comes as a surprise to me, as it has been for many people.” he said. “However, every time I do something positive, a good play, hit a base hit, a home run, score a run, I’m helping my team.
“The team’s collective numbers, not the personal stats, are the most important to me.”
Morgan Ensberg, who homered in six consecutive games in 2006, is the only player in Astros history to hit home runs in more than five consecutive games. Altuve joins Lance Berkman (2004) and Cliff Johnson (1976) as the only other players in franchise history to homer in five consecutive games.
On April 9, Altuve hit two home runs for just the fifth time in his career and fourth in the regular season. His other multi-home run game was in the postseason. One of those home runs on April 9 against the Yankees was the 100th of his career.
More importantly, Altuve appears healthy a year after he was plagued by knee injuries. The 5-foot-6, 165-pound second baseman played through excruciating pain last postseason as the Astros’ season ended in the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.
He refused to make excuses last season even though it was clear that he was playing on a bum knee. Impressively, he disguised his injury by hustling down the line as though he were perfectly fine throughout the playoffs.
While Manny Machado was infamously declaring that he was no Johnny Hustle during the playoffs with the Dodgers, Altuve was Jose Hustle with the Astros. It’s the only way he has known how to play since the Astros signed him out of Venezuela.
“I think he’s hitting with his legs a little bit more now than he did last season,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s getting good pitches to hit, and he’s not missing them. He does a good job of hunting pitches.
“He looks for fastballs, swings at fastballs. Looks for off speed, and when he gets it, he does a ton of damage. He’s in a really good place right now, physically, and obviously he’s producing. A healthy Altuve is a productive one.”
Now that he’s healthy, he appears on pace to tie club icon Biggio for the most All-Star berths in franchise history, seven.
Altuve is hunting pitches and sending them out of the park at a much better pace than ever this year, and the results have been good.
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