As an avid Giants fan, I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say that watching Tim Lincecum pitch, especially in the postseason, was amongst the most enjoyable baseball experiences I’ve had as a spectator.
Aside from his sheer dominance, the fact that he was able to do things on the mound that nobody thought was possible, made him must-see TV. Armed with a new 5 year, $150 million contract, a new “Freak” has emerged in the diminutive, 2018 AL MVP, Jose Altuve.
Similar to Lincecum, baseball fans have become enamored with the Astros’ 2nd baseman due to his incredible production despite a 5’6” frame. Unlike Lincecum, however, Altuve’s path to stardom took quite a different trajectory.
Over the last 4 seasons, it can be argued that no player, aside from Mike Trout, has consistently played at a higher level than Altuve. And following his 3-homer outburst against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS, (2 of which came off of Red Sox ace Chris Sale), Altuve’s legend continued to grow.
In the same way Lincecum captivated an audience with his freakish abilities, I find myself anxiously awaiting each Jose Altuve at-bat with the same amount of amazement and awe.
Today, I’ll dive into what it is that (in my opinion) has made Altuve so unique, and why, despite standing a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than fellow MVP candidates Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, Altuve’s combination of hand-eye coordination and athleticism has helped produce a swing like I have never seen.
Like any good hitter, Altuve’s boost in offensive production began with swing adjustment he made early in his career. As you see in the video below, while his initial setup in 2011 (left) and 2017 (right) are very similar, the balance and hitting position created with Altuve’s aggressive leg-kick has transformed his abilities as a hitter.
In my 11 seasons as a minor-leaguer and Division 1 hitting coach, the implementation of a leg-kick isn’t all that uncommon. For those Giants fans who watch the team on a consistent basis, we know that Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Brandon Belt are just a few of the hitters in baseball who have had success employing a leg-kick.
Generally-speaking, hitters implement a leg-kick for one of two reasons: 1) to generate more of the body’s mass and momentum towards the hitting zone, which results in added bat-speed, or 2) allow for more rhythm and fluidity throughout the process of the swing (think Newton’s law of inertia – an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force).
Two examples of hitters who incorporated leg-kicks to generate more bat speed, more-or-less reinventing themselves as hitters, are the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson. As you can see in the video, the adjustments made by both Donaldson and Bautista early in their career, are similar to that of Altuve.
From my standpoint, determining the overall aggressiveness of a stride can be measured by 1) how much ground their midline gains towards the pitcher, and 2) how their front foot & hip reacts to the momentum generated by the stride. In both Bautista and Donaldson’s case, their midline’s have traveled a significant distance due to the stride-length of their leg-kick.
As a result, the mass and momentum has forced their front foot and front hip to open up in order to efficiently catapult the swing through. The same can be said for Bryce Harper below.
In my experience, aggressive leg-kicks and strides like these are based around 1 offensive approach and 1 approach only – to hit the ball out of the park.
On the other hand, our own Buster Posey is well known for possessing an exaggerated leg-kick, however his is utilized more for rhythm and flow.
As you can see from the photo below, Posey’s stride-length is much shorter than both Donaldson and Bautista as evidenced by the minimal movement in the midline, despite him having a similar-height leg-kick.
But the biggest difference between Posey and Bautista/Donaldson is the hitting position they are in when the front foot comes into contract with the ground. As you can see, everything about Posey’s alignment is square to the pitcher (including the front shoulder, hip, and foot), suggesting a much more balanced foundation that has the ability to spray the ball around the entire field.
As it pertains to Altuve, we notice that he’s able to effectively combine momentum and balance.
According to the graphic above, not only is Altuve’s stride length almost double that of the average Major League hitter, he’s able to do so while maintaining Posey-like balance throughout.
Unlike Bautista and Donaldson, Altuve has maintained a perfectly balanced foundation as evidenced by his near 50/50 weight distribution. Additionally, we’re able to see how square he is to the pitcher (like Posey) with his front foot, hip, and shoulder all staying closed, opening up the entire field for him to work with.
For comparison’s sake, if we look at another Giant who possesses a big leg-kick – Brandon Belt, and compare him with Altuve at the same point of the swing in terms of balance and athleticism, perhaps we get a better idea of how rare Altuve’s body control truly is.
The only other players who I’ve studied that were able to consistently put themselves in a hitting position like Altuve, aside from Posey, are the Dodgers’ Corey Seager and the Yankees’ Derek Jeter.
Like Altuve, Seager is perfectly square and balanced when his stride foot plants into the ground, allowing him to be in a solid hitting position when the ball enters the hitting zone. Seager, however, incorporates a much more generic stride and is able to rely on his 6’4” frame to generate power and leverage, something Altuve doesn’t have the luxury of doing.
Jeter is also balanced and square, but his leg-kick, similar to Posey, was utilized for balance and rhythm, not bat speed. This is further evidenced by the 13 homeruns per season he averaged for his career, to go along with a .310 batting average.
In studying video of Jose Altuve, it becomes clear that the key to his success is the ability to generate the explosiveness of a Josh Donaldson with the balance of Buster Posey – and somehow, he does it with consistency. Perhaps even more proof lies in the way they talk about hitting. Notice that both Altuve and Donaldson highlight how their bottom-half works in the swing, whereas the majority of hitters throughout baseball stress the importance of their “hands.”
Now had Altuve’s ability to combine momentum with balance been the only factor in his production, I still would have been in awe of his performance. However, there’s one more aspect of his swing, that when combined with what we now know, makes him truly unique.
One of the most difficult aspects of incorporating a Donaldson-like leg-kick and stride (aside from the difficulty in timing), is the fact that head movement comes into play. Hitting a baseball will level eyes is difficult enough, and when you add in either vertical or horizontal movement, the ability to recognize pitch types, velocities, and movements are significantly impacted.
The Twins’ Joe Mauer has always been my “poster-boy” for minimal head-movement and is a major factor in why he’s been so successful throughout his 13-year big league career. As you can see from the photo, Mauer has almost no head movement throughout the entirety of his swing, allowing him to maximize the ability to recognize pitches and make adjustments.
On the contrary, hitters like Altuve, who have a lot of movement, generally sacrifice pitch recognition for power. As we can see, the difference between head movement in Mauer and Altuve is significant.
So how has Jose Altuve managed to hit over .336 this season against fastballs (.354), sinkers (.429), sliders (.336), curveballs (.431), and split-fingers (.417) despite so much head movement?
As a hitting coach, when I dealt with hitters whose head gained ground towards the pitcher (as Altuve’s does), the most common result is that it creates an illusion for the hitter that a pitch on the outer third of the plate is further away than it actually is. It is for that reason that so many high leg-kick power hitters struggle with the ball away (in addition to the location not being conducive to pull-side power production). But what Altuve has done to compensate, is something that is widely considered to be a “swing flaw.”
If we shift our angle to the pitcher’s view, we notice that Altuve actually dives into home plate with his aggressive leg-kick and stride.
Typically, diving into the plate leads to more common swing inefficiencies such as balance-related issues, pulling off the ball, or cutting off the swing (just to name a few). However, because of Altuve’s balance and athleticism, he’s able to incorporate something that would almost assuredly breakdown the swing of other hitters. With his natural lightning-quick bat to the inner half of the plate (as evidenced by the two 95+ mph fastballs on the middle-in half of the plate he hit for homeruns off Chris Sale), Altuve can afford to dive into the plate to ensure full plate coverage. And based on that fact that the majority of the pitches he sees are on the outer third of the plate, a significant amount of Altuve’s success stems from his ability to hit the pitch away.
When comparing Altuve to Posey from a pitcher’s view, it becomes easier to see the difference in just how drastic Altuve’s approach is.
Angels slugger Mike Trout stays slightly more closed than Posey, but again, nothing close to the likes of Altuve.
Jose Altuve is an incredible hitter – that goes without saying. But what separates him from guys like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper is the fact that what he’s doing isn’t natural. Trout and Harper have the “luxury” of relying on their size and strength for power, therefore minimizing the complexities in their swings. Jose Altuve, on the other hand, is forced to incorporate complexities to mask the lack of mass and power he possesses, at least compared to his peers. As a baseball fan who got so much enjoyment out of watching “The Freak,” it’s exciting to watch someone of Altuve’s stature, bring the same amount of creativity and innovation to the batter’s box.