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Jose Altuve is likely long picked up in your fantasy league, but boy has he picked up his game following a flashy but questionable debut stint last season.
Altuve's the shortest player in the bigs (5-foot-5, 170 pounds), and Dustin Pedroia comparisons follow him. Starlin Castro also makes sense. Both diamond doppelgangers reflect Altuve's strength: making contact. He skipped Triple-A to force his way to the Houston Astros in 2011, all the way up from high Single-A (his second stint there). His Marco Scutaro-type mold was apparent from the get-go.
Sunday marked Altuve's 22nd birthday; he's the second-youngest MLB player. And aside from an 0-for-3 mark after Opening Day, his lowest cumulative clip after any game this year was .292 (April 13).
Let's recognize the "small sample size" caution but acknowledge that he has apparently made some notable strides, especially with his patience, a lack of which has been an often-criticized point of his makeup.
While not elite, his walk rate (6.6) is a leaps-and-bounds boost over that from 2011 (2.1). After posting a 55.0 swing percentage last year, he has only swatted at 38.9 percent of pitches he has seen in 2012, per Fangraphs.com, and he's in the mid-90s in contact rate. He's laying off more often on throws outside the zone, as well, increasing his efficiency in picking spots.
Houston has been running wild on the base paths, and Altuve's pace has ramped up, as well; his five thefts so far are only two behind his total from 200-plus AB last year. It helps that he's offering more than batting average and the relatively team-dependent runs scored and RBIs, which are in decent shape given Houston's surprisingly potent lineup so far. Sustaining his stolen-base abundance would go a long way in preserving significant year-end value even after his teammates cool down and his clip normalizes.
It will, even if afterward he's still performing at a high level. You can throw in the tried and true BABIP warning, considering his stands at .398 and has inflated his clip to .351. But his liner- and grounder-fueled "put it in play" profile speaks to producing consistently high BABIPs, and even if they rest in, say, the .320-.330 bracket and not near .400, he'd remain in top-shelf BA company.
Though lofty, Altuve challenging for the National League batting crown isn't out of the question, even this year, considering what he's good at. A more rational vision pegs him to finish somewhere between .280 and .300.
His physique has fueled long-term doubt. Can he regularly post swinging-strike rates as miniscule as the 2.5 percent he's displayed so far? For someone his size, that could be a concern, especially the possibility of power pitchers overwhelming him. But of late he has excelled against fastballs - another positive step in his young career and proof that his power could build on the nearly 200-point slugging-percentage growth this year from 2011. Of course, small stature doesn't always limit power if said hitter makes authoritative connections.
There's enough time left to justify him reaching 10 homers, though that's a sounder possibility in the coming years as he grows into his frame and generates more lift. Clip-leaning commodities are risky, but he has enough foundation elsewhere to supplement your traditional middle-infield needs.
Selling makes sense considering the regression threat. But if you hang tight, you'll retain a valuable, blossoming asset, even in shallow leagues. Given the struggles of the likes of Rickie Weeks, Ben Zobrist and Danny Espinosa, and to some extent Brandon Phillips, the need for season-long second-base stability can't be ignored.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.
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