Astros: Looking at the risk in the Jose Altuve contract
The Astros should be confident about the short-term of Jose Altuve’s new contract. But risks do exist.
Jose Altuve officially signed his new contract extension a while back. You can find this author’s financial breakdown of the contract here. The Astros were wise to sign him to a contract extension now despite the risks that are inherent with long-term commitments of this magnitude.
The pressing question now becomes whether Altuve ages well into this new contract. While the extension currently looks dandy from both sides and may stay that way throughout the term duration, there does lie risks. For example, skills can deteriorate faster than expected. Altuve’s calling card has been primarily based on contact and speed. It has only been in recent seasons that the power explosion took place. But contact and a fair amount of speed have been his bread-and-butter. Here are his sprint speeds since Statcast started tracking it in 2015.
2015: 28.0 feet/second
2016: 28.5 feet/second
2017: 28.0 feet/second
Based on Statcast’s data for sprint speeds the past three seasons, Altuve’s measurements have been fairly consistent. This is an encouraging sign for him and the Astros. While Altuve has and will never be a top speed player, he has enough to make it a weapon on the base paths. This is supported by the 231 career stolen bases.
The general thought with a baseball player’s speed is linked to age. In a June 28th article by Mike Petriello of MLB.com, an analysis was done of the top three fastest players at each position during the 2017 season. Out of the 27 players, only two were thirty years of age or older. The average speed sprint among Major League players is 27 per second. Petriello also mentions in his article that “studies have been suggesting for years” the top speedsters were also the young players of the game. He surmises it quite well in one sentence.
"“Speed peaks early.”"
Also, here are Altuve’s contact percentages since the 2015 season.
In terms of the contact rates, it is clear Altuve has slipped in this regard. However, he still ranks 19th in average contact rate from 2015 through 2017. Altuve makes contact, a lot of it, which is one reason why he is so valuable.
The combination of contact and speed along with a certain degree of luck is represented well in Altuve’s BABIP.
That said, the Astros’ star appears to have compensated some contact for more power in recent years, which isn’t uncommon in today’s hitting environment. The game is becoming more about the three true outcomes: home runs, strikeouts, and walks. To help illustrate the point, here are Altuve’s isolated power and strikeout rates the past three seasons.
2015: 9.7 K%; .146 ISO
2016: 9.8 K%; .194 ISO
2017: 12.7 K%; .202 ISO
It should also be noted that Altuve’s walk rate has climbed to career-high levels in 2016 and 2017.
Somehow, Altuve’s BABIP has also increased in each of the past three seasons despite more home runs, walks, and strikeouts. Of course, he still hits a lot singles.
And a fair portion of these singles can be counted as infield hits. Infield hits usually require a decent amount of speed.
Altuve, in plenty of ways, has transformed himself into a complete player. It’s hard to believe that a hitter can overhaul certain aspects of his game without sacrificing much of his original skill set.
In the short-term, there isn’t much reason to expect a drastic drop-off from Altuve although I would like for people to temper their expectations.
While it is not a certainty, we have likely seen the ceiling of Altuve’s skill set in 2017. It would be difficult, and unrealistic, to expect him to match or exceed the level of play he maintained all season long last year. Of course, he has made a living proving the doubters wrong. I hope I am wrong, but I am also trying to remain realistic.
In terms of his new contract extension, Altuve should continue to provide value if he performs at his most recent levels. The ZiPS projections housed over at FanGraphs has Altuve slashing .318/.375/.497 with a 134 wRC+ and 34 stolen bases. ZiPS also projects a 5.6 zWAR, which would equal a $47.6 WAR-to-dollars value if a win is valued at $8.5 million.
Next: (Meaningless) baseball returns to Minute Maid Park!
Barring a drastic injury or an immediate decline in skills, the short-term appears fairly safe for the Astros. Altuve will likely produce a surplus value for a while. A drop off in speed is my primary concern today. If his speed does gradually decline, the final two-to-three years of the extension could be rather cumbersome. Altuve is nearing 28-years of age and health is not a guarantee in life. Speed has been linked to age and health. If Altuve is robbed of his health, the $26 million per season salary will be a detriment to the overall payroll. But for the time being, with health permitting, Altuve should continue to be one of the Astros’ superstars.
**Statistics and information courtesy of FanGraphs, BaseballReference, and Baseball Savant**