MLB: Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros

People love to talk about a young player having a “breakout season.” As a non-technical term, the notion of a breakout season is fine: a young player having his first big year. Sometimes, though, it is taken to mean something specific. A breakout in this case is taken to mean a season in which a player establishes a new level of performance such that previous performances need to be ignored (or at least weighted less heavily than usual).

The (contradictory) twin of the breakout season is the “outlier,” a season that is so much worse (or so much better in the case of bad player) that is should pretty much be ignored. Both of these concepts might have some merit, but I generally find them to be problematic and overused. Without getting into the details, they both usually end up being used as excuses for statistical cherry picking.

People also rarely talk about the opposite of a breakout; call it a “breakdown.” This is especially true right after a player has been celebrated for a breakout. As an example, take a look at 2012 Astros tiny second base sensation Jose Altuve. Specifically, check out his 2013 numbers. Wha’ happened?

[And yes, that is one of the few funny moments in that movie. So disappointing.]

Altuve’s major league debut in 2011 was hardly auspicious. Over 234 plate appearances after his call up, the 21-year-old second baseman hit just .276/.297/.357. Basically all he did was not strike out, even his base stealing was not that impressive (seven for 10). The Astros were at the beginning of a long rebuilding process (as they still are), though, so it made sense to give the youngster a full look in 2012.

At least from the publicity he seemed to attract, Altuve became something of a sensation in his first full season in the majors. He hit .290/.340/.399, which turned out to be above-average (103 wRC+) while stealing 33 bases and being caught just 11 times. Fielding metrics were not too impressed with his performance, but it was just one year of data from still-controversial (and understandably so) measures. What might have excited people the most about Altuve was that the 5 feet, five inches tall second baseman managed to hit seven home runs. Yes, it was just seven home runs, but from that tiny frame? Amazing.

Over 147 games and 610 plate appearances, Altuve was worth 1.6 fWAR and 1.5 rWAR. That was below average, but again, that was largely due to poor fielding ratings. Baseball Prospectus WARP, which uses its own fielding system, had Altuve as an above-average fielder worth 3.7 WARP in 2012. Whatever the truth was, all three mostly agreed about his bat, and moreover, it was just his age 22 season.

Altuve got off to a bit of a slow start in 2013, but the Astros were clearly happy with the way things had gone so far. Altuve was not on pace to be eligible for arbitration until after the 2014 season, but the Astros figured things would never be better, so they made him the face of the franchise (who did you want, Brett Wallace?) with a four-year, $12.5 million contract that was guaranteed through his projected arbitration years, and also included two club options for his first two free agent seasons. As with almost all of this pre-arbitration deals, it looked like a no-lose deal.

It turns out that Altuve’s slow first half was not just a slump. His 2013 hitting line so far looks, well, almost exactly like what he put up in 2011. Compare:

2011: .276/.297/.357, 80 wRC+
2012: .290/.340/.399, 103 wRC+
2013: .274/.313/.350, 81 wRC+

One question might be whether 2012 is a “breakout” or an “outlier,” but as written above, I do not think those concepts are very helpful in themselves when it comes to (semi-) serious analysis. Even a full season of plate appearances is a relatively small sample size, and random variation plays a big part in every season around a player’s true talent. Blah blah blah we have to regress appropriately, you know?

Looking more closely at Altuve’s peripherals, it is tough to blame the usual culprit, poor BABIP luck, for this season. His BABIP this year is .307, only a bit lower than last season’s .321. For his career so far, he is a .314 BABIP hitter. I would not expect him to be a low-BABIP hitter (under .300) given his speed and low fly ball and pop-up rates, but it is not like he’s a lefty who hits lots of screaming line drives, either. This is probably about what he is.

BABIP is a good first stop when a player seems to be having a particularly good or bad season, but it does not really tell us anything about Altuve. The answer lies in the more stable peripheral rates. When it comes to plate discipline, Altuve is not an obvious hacker — his swing rate is right around league average. However, this year he is swinging more often at pitches outside the defined strike zone, while taking pitches in the zone. That is not necessarily telling in itself, but probably sets up some tough plate appearances.

In addition, Altuve has been working from behind in most plate appearances, with an F-strike percentage of around 64 percent. Now, his good contact rates have kept him from striking out much, even if he is no longer in the elite Marco Scutaro range this season. A 13 percent strikeout rate is still very good, but when contact is really all a hitter has, it really is not enough.

What else does Altuve have? Not walks. Even in 2012, when he was a more of a power threat (relatively speaking) and had a better plate approach, he only walked about six percent of the time. This year, he is down to under five-and-a-half percent. Most significant for Altuve’s struggles at the plate this year, though, has been the departure of his power.

His .103 isolated power in 2012 was not great, or even average compared to the league, but it did enable more offensive value from all of that contact. This year Altuve is down to .076. It it were just doubles and triples on hits in play, one might see it as random variation, to which doubles and triples are particularly subject. While that rate is down, so is his home run on contact rate — down to about one percent, much closer to his 2011 rate than his 2012 rate (about 1.4 percent). That may not seem like much, but it obviously makes a difference for Altuve.

Altuve’s problem is basically that his one skill at the plate is putting the ball into play. That might work, as not everyone has to be a walks machine. The problem is that not much happens when the ball is put in play. He seems to be playing to his strengths at the moment by not hitting fly balls, which keeps the BABIP decent. When the ball does land for a hit, though, not much happens. Altuve is a good base stealer, but it is not enough to make up for the general lack of production. It is hard to add value on the bases when you rarely get on base.

It is not as if there is no hope for Altuve. The offensive expectations from second baseman are not high, and he is still just 23, an age in which most skills at the plate are still on the rise. The power from his age-22 season still happened, and as with the return of Colby Rasmus‘ power this year, can pay off down the road. Of course, there is not as much to build on with Altuve as with Rasmus, either in straight statistical terms (even if he is a seven-home-run power per 600 plate appearance increases by fifteen percent, he is still just an eight home run hitter) or in terms of adding more bulk to his frame. Even if he could do so, adding bulk to his frame might also cause issues with his questionable range at second, and he definitely needs to stay at second to have value.

This does not mean extension was a bad move for the Astros. In some ways, it shows that it was a good move. As touched on earlier this season, Altuve is one of the few, homegrown, recognizable faces for the Astros this year, which is a nice thing to have as they trudge up the rebuilding mountain. And again, he is young enough that improvement is likely, although at this point “average player” would be a pretty big improvement for Altuve.

Finally, unless one thinks that Altuve is just a sub-replacement level scrub (and I think that’s too harsh), the contract really does not hurt the team that much. Houston already has a notoriously low budget. Even in the last guaranteed year of Altuve’s deal in 2017, he will make $4.5 million. Teams often spend that much or more on middle relievers, and that’s the biggest year in the current deal.

It is thus still a nice deal for the Astros, especially if Altuve’s glove works out and he can regain his, er, “power stroke” from 2012. It is also nice security for Altuve, especially if he continues to play like David Eckstein in a bad year while somehow avoiding the saber-mockery to which Eckstein was subjected.