Altuve in Midst of Historic Run

After several years as an under-the-radar all-star, perhaps even a pseudo-novelty due to his diminutive stature, Jose Altuve announced himself to the national audience last fall as he led the Houston Astros to a World Series championship. The 5'6", 160-pound second baseman beat out the 6'7", 280-pound Aaron Judge in one of the most intriguing AL MVP races in recent memory, and firmly entrenched himself as one of the game's brightest stars.

But just how good is Jose Altuve?

Yes, he's widely acknowledged as a perennial all-star candidate and a cornerstone of the Astros new powerhouse era, but as the 28-year-old Venezuelan sprints towards his fifth straight all-star appearance, Altuve finds himself in the midst of one of the greatest five-year offensive runs by any second-baseman in the last 50 years.

He is currently hitting .340, and is in the thick of the race for a third consecutive AL batting title, and fourth in five years. He also leads the majors in hits, and is gunning for his fifth straight American League hits title, which would extend what is already a major league record for consecutive seasons atop the league leader board. He is the four-time reigning AL Silver Slugger award winner at second base, and is coming off back-to-back seasons with a slugging percentage over .500.

And, just to satisfy the old-hat, traditional profile of a second baseman of his size, Altuve has thrown in 30+ steals a season for the last six years, and strikes out well below 100 times a year. Overall, since the start of the 2014 season, the former high school free agent signee has registered the following line:

.335/.384/.494/.877, OPS+ 144

To put his tremendous run into perspective, I took a look at the best five-year stretches from a group of modern era players (since 1950) considered by many to be the cream of the crop when it comes offensive production from a second baseman.

The first player I examined is a contemporary of Altuve: the currently suspended Seattle Mariners star Robinson Cano. Prior to signing a mega-deal with Seattle prior to the 2014 season, Cano burst onto the scene in New York, establishing himself as the gold standard for offense at the second base position. The 2011 Home Run Derby champion won the AL Silver Slugger award four consecutive seasons from 2010-2013, and from 2009-2013 put up the following line:

.314/.369/.530/.899, OPS+ 138

Cano averaged 198 hits per 162 games over the span (Altuve has averaged 220 per 162), and knocked 40+ doubles in five consecutive years. While his power numbers compare favorably, we're talking about a 6-foot, 200-pound bull, known as a home run hitter, who's OPS is just 20 points higher than Altuve. In addition, his lower OPS+ means Altuve has stood out more among his peers over the last four plus seasons. Cano also never led the league in any statistical category over that period, aside from games played (161) in 2009.

The next player whose numbers I placed against Altuve's set the pace for production from the second base position in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Jeff Kent retired in 2008 with 377 homers, over 1,500 RBIs and nearly 2,500 hits. During his five-year peak with the San Francisco Giants from 1998-2002, Kent's line was:

.307/.378/.548/.926, OPS+ 142

Again, Altuve is not destined to be the power hitter Kent was, but Kent was certainly not swiping 40 bags and leading the league in batting average on a yearly basis. While Kent was the NL Silver Slugger award winner from 2000-2002 and hit .334 in his MVP 2000 campaign, he too never led the league the league in any category over his five-year peak. And, as we can see, Altuve has topped Kent in average, on-base percentage, and OPS+ during his tear.

Jumping off from two players who firmly established second base as a power position, I took a look at the only second sacker in the bunch who ever recorded a 40 homer season. When he retired in 1997, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg was the all-time leader in home runs as a second baseman (later to be passed by Kent). During Sandberg's five-year peak with the Chicago Cubs from 1988-1992, he posted the following line:

.291/.357/.494/.851, OPS+ 133

Here we see Altuve matching or besting a Hall of Fame player across the board during the prime of his career. Yes, Sandberg was a pioneer in terms of major offensive damage being done by a second baseman and the position has since shifted in that direction, but again, we're talking about a player of far larger stature than the Astros all-star.

To find the player Altuve is truly chasing in terms of the best five-year offensive run by a second baseman over the last 50 years, I had to go back to the 1970s, and the legendary second baseman of the famed Big Red Machine, Joe Morgan. Now 35 years since his retirement, its easy to forget just what made the 1975 and 1976 National League MVP and Hall of Famer Morgan one of the greatest players of his era. From 1973-1977, "The Little General" was in a class of his own:

.303/.431/.508/.940, OPS+ 160

Morgan is a much better comp to Altuve in terms of the style of player he was, but where Altuve is generally aggressive at the plate (averaged just 41 walks per year since 2014) Morgan was as patient as they come. He topped 100 walks in five straight years from '73-'77, and that ability to work free passes from pitchers translated into five consecutive years with an OBP over .400, twice leading the majors. The Reds legend also scored more than 100 runs in each of those years, and was also a poster child for the renaissance of the stolen base that took place during the decade, topping 60 steals three times during the stretch.

Silver Sluggers were not awarded until the 1980 season, but Morgan undoubtedly would have had the award locked down during his prime years in Cincinnati. He did, however, stack five consecutive Gold Gloves during the run. By comparison, Altuve has only garnered that defensive award once to this point in his career.

While it would take a Herculean effort by Altuve over the rest of the 2018 campaign to match Morgan's on-base numbers, the reigning MVP sits just 12 points behind Morgan's five-year slugging percentage, and his average OPS+ can remain comparable if he can continue his torrid hit spree.

To determine which second baseman has truly posted the greatest five-year stretch in history depends on what area of offensive production one values most, be it power, speed, on-base ability, etc. However, the fact remains that Altuve has put himself into the conversation with the outstanding string of seasons he's put together.

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