In general, leadoff hitters have one primary goal – to get on base. It does not matter how, just so long as they get there. A walk, a base hit, getting hit by a pitch or somehow performing a Jedi Mind Trick to take that leisurely ninety foot stroll are all perfectly acceptable.
That ability to get on base is a major part of what helps make Jose Altuve so valuable to the Houston Astros. The maybe 5’6″ sparkplug of the Astros offense, Altuve produced a .340/.377/.453 batting line, ranking 14th in all of baseball in on base percentage. While a solid leadoff hitter last year, Altuve’s numbers actually took a bit of a hit atop the lineup, as he produced a .331/.363/.444 batting line from the leadoff spot.
Those numbers, while a bit lower, are still excellent. Most teams would salivate over having a leadoff hitter that would produce at that level. However, for the Astros, Altuve’s true value may not be maximized by having him as their primary leadoff hitter.
This sounds counter intuitive, so an explanation is in order. First, the Astros seemingly have a replacement for Jose Altuve at the top of the lineup in Dexter Fowler, provided he is not traded. While he did not have nearly the batting average that Altuve did, Fowler was just a shade behind him with a .375 on base percentage. He has proven to be adept at working the count, taking pitches and drawing walks, none of which are exactly strengths of Altuve’s.
Second, Altuve’s skillset seems perfectly suited to be the second hitter in the lineup. His ability to make contact is astounding, as he has struck out in only 10.7% of his career at bats, far below the league average of 19.7%. That skill with the bat would allow Altuve to place the ball wherever needed, helping move the runner along or to create a first and third scenario.
With the makings of a solid bullpen and starting rotation, the next step for the Astros will be to maximize their offensive output. Having George Springer and Jon Singleton take that next step forward would certainly help, but in order for their power to truly be effective, runners need to be on base. Having Dexter Fowler and Jose Altuve, in that order, ahead of them in the lineup, could increase the chances that either Singleton or Springer could get a mistake pitch to send into the stratosphere.
The Houston Astros find themselves in the enviable position of having two potential leadoff hitters. With that being the case, Jose Altuve would be a better fit as the Astros second hitter.