Whenever teams visit Safeco Field, there are personalities from the opposing side worthy of discussion. Throughout this season, I’ll do my best to shine the spotlight on some of them as their respective clubs make the trek to Seattle.
First up is Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros, coming to town for the Mariners’ home opener.
Although he’s off to a slow start in 2017 — six hits in his first 25 plate appearances — Altuve has slashed .324/.368/.467 during 335 career plate appearances against Seattle pitching. He’s been particularly problematic for staff ace Felix Hernandez, although King Felix did strike out the seven-year pro twice on Opening Day.
Hopefully, Mariners fans find some measure of comfort in knowing Altuve poses a challenge for every pitching staff. Since 2014, the native of Maracay, Venezuela has won two AL batting titles collecting the most hits (641) in the majors. The next closest player — Seattle’s Robinson Cano — had 80 fewer.
Reaching base isn’t the only component of Altuve’s attack; far from it. His fleet feet are a disruptive force that have led to 124 stolen bases over the last three seasons. In 2016, his power emerged as another method to frustrate opponents.
Between 2014-16, Altuve’s home run totals have incrementally ticked upwards with his slugging percentage peaking at .531 last season. That’s just ahead of two players more recognizable for being sluggers — Yoenis Cespedes (.530) and Edwin Encarnacion (.529).
The 26-year-old is now a perennial MVP candidate thanks to his smooth blend of power, speed, and on-base ability. His game is reminiscent of another Astros second baseman from the early days of the franchise’s history — Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
Best remembered as a Cincinnati Red, Morgan spent the first nine years of his major league career with the Houston Colt .45’s/Astros before being dealt to the Reds in November 1971.
Though still early in his career, Altuve’s record stacks up very well when compared to Morgan’s beginning in Houston. Here’s a look at the duo through their first 829 games — Altuve’s career total through 2016.
|Joe Morgan v Jose Altuve (through 829 games)|
At this early stage of his career, Altuve has more home runs, stolen bases, and a higher slugging percentage than Morgan did, although “Little Joe” was more selective at the plate with substantially more walks and fewer strikeouts.
It’s worth noting Morgan’s best years didn’t occur until he reached Cincinnati. Between 1972-76 — the heyday of the Big Red Machine — he won two consecutive NL MVP awards while averaging 22 home runs and 62 stolen bases annually.
While it’s cool comparing Altuve and Morgan in this manner, discussing the Hall of Fame chances of the current Astros’ second baseman now would be premature. Perhaps, his power numbers from last season were an aberration. Maybe the inevitable loss of speed on the other side of age-30 will bog down his productivity.
Time will eventually determine Altuve’s place in baseball history. For now, I’m content with watching him change the outcome of games with his bat and legs.
I suggest you consider doing the same, even if it’s your team he’s beating.