Jose Altuves hitting is art, but its science, too – Houston Chronicle

Posted: October 13, 2019 at 1:43 am

There are any number of ways to quantify the astonishing things that Jos Altuve has wrought as a 66-inch-tall ballplayer wielding a 33-inch-long bat.

Statisticians can testify that Altuve has hit 11 postseason home runs a record for Major League Baseball second baseman including three in the just-completed American League Division Series.

High-speed cameras can document that Altuves Thursday night home run, the final blow in the Astros 6-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that wrapped up the hard-fought, best-of-five series, traveled 405 feet and left his bat at 103.6 mph with a launch angle of 26 degrees.

Biomechanics analysts can postulate that Altuves success derives from a relatively high strength to body mass ratio, fast-twitch muscular interaction and exceptional ability to translate energy through adjacent body parts.

But it takes the words of a witness such as Justin Verlander, armed only with his two good eyes and an appreciation of the skills required to play big-league baseball, to provide an adequate summary of what these elements represent to anyone playing with or against Altuve.

The stamp of an incredible ballplayer is when you know immediately, after playing with them a week or two, how special they are, Verlander said before the Astros open the American League Championship Series against the Yankees on Saturday at Minute Maid Park.

Altuve beats you in every facet of the game, he added. He beats you with his legs. He beats you with his arm. He beats you with his contact. He can hit the long ball. He has range at second base that is unbelievable. He does everything extremely well, and when you put it all together and add in that clutch gene that he has, it makes Jos Altuve.

Astros fans have marveled at Altuve for a decade, through his arrival in 2011 with teams that lost at least 100 games three years in a row through the ballclubs rebuild with three straight 100-win seasons, the 2017 World Series title and Altuves selection with Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt as Sports Illustrateds 2017 Sportspersons of the Year.

However, his recent power surge, with a career-high 31 home runs in MLBs year of the long ball, plus three more in the Division Series, has focused new attention on the astonishing things that Altuve can perpetrate upon an incoming baseball.

Truth be told, those who study baseball, strength training and biomechanics say that Altuve, with 11 homers in 165 postseason plate appearances, succeeds because of the same elements that powered Babe Ruth, who at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 215 pounds had 15 homers in 167 World Series plate appearances.

Its our expectations, they say, that are befuddled by Altuves excellence.

He has signals that go to his brain to his arms quicker than other people, and he can react to them, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. He sees things like no one else sees things. It involves eyes, the way people are wired and their physical abilities.

Hes one of the elite athletes of the world. I dont think we can explain why Michael Jordan did what he did or what LeBron James does or what any elite athlete does. They just have the ability to do it.

Altuves relatively small size has long been the subject of some humor. Witness the website howmanyaltuves.com, where users can calculate distances in units paired to Altuves height (which the website says is 5 feet, 5 inches); 100 yards, for example, is 55.38 Altuves.

Height, however, is not a liability in baseball to the degree that it is in other team sports. Wee Willie Keeler, Rabbit Maranville, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Sewell and Hack Wilson all were selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame despite standing 5-foot-6 or shorter, and Wilson in 1930 hit 56 home runs with an MLB record 191 RBIs.

Dr. Glenn Fleisig, research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., said one of baseballs singular virtues is that players of any stature can excel given certain other attributes.

Biomechanics is a fancy word for technique, which is the proper sequence of different motions. When do you rotate your hips? How much do you rotate them? When do you twist your trunk? When do you extend your elbow? he said. The guys who succeed can consistently fire body parts at the right time with the right amount of flexibility and power.

You have to have the right combination. Its not genetics, its not conditioning, its not training. Its everything. You have to have all three. You cant have just two. And proper mechanics is the same for the big guys and the little guys.

Matthew Mahar, director of the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, said Wilson may be the Hall of Famer who most resembles Altuve in terms of body composition.

My visual analysis suggests that they both used relatively large bats and were able to generate great bat speed, which would lead to the force needed to hit the long ball, Mahar said. They both appear to use enormously strong lower bodies to generate bat speed.

Duane Knudson, a professor at Texas State University in San Marcos who is president of the International Society of Biomechanics in Sports, said certain physical forces favor a player of Altuves size.

The larger person has more body mass to fling around to swing a bat, Knudson said. Think about Arnold Schwarzenegger having to twist his trunk to hit a baseball. Now think about Simone Biles and the amount of strength that she has relative to her body mass.

Strength researchers talk about relative strength. I would imagine that Jos Altuve has a very high strength to body mass ratio, and hes able to make the most of his stature.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa may lack up-to-date knowledge of biometric analysis, but, like Verlander, he knows what he sees when it comes to Altuves relative strength.

Pound for pound, he is the strongest guy in the clubhouse. He is a strong human being, Correa said. Hes fast. His legs are strong. He can squat more than anybody in the weight room. He can do maybe 20 pullups in a row, and nobody else can do that in here.

His power is insane, and he can transfer it to the ball. Call it what you want, but the man is good.

In 2011, when Altuve made his Astros debut, a story on the website FanGraphs.com said that based on his height and the attributes he displayed during his early career, he most resembled those of Bip Roberts, who at 5-foot-7 played 12 years in the big leagues and was a career .294 hitter with 30 home runs and an on-base percentage of .358 with 264 stolen bases and an on-base plus slugging percentage of .737.

Through nine seasons, however, Altuve has 128 homers with a .315 batting average, 254 steals, a .364 on-base percentage and an OPS of .827.

In other words, hes trending less toward Bip Roberts and more toward Joe Morgan, who began his career in Houston and made the Hall of Fame despite a modest 5-foot-7 stature.

Morgan said during a recent trip to Houston that he believes Altuve is the best player in the game.

I love Altuve. What is there not to love? Morgan said. He hits as many home runs as the guys theyre saying are better than him, he drives in runs, he scores runs. He can do anything, and what makes him special is that hes shorter than me.

To say that he has exceeded expectations, said his former minor league manager Rodney Linares, now a coach with the Rays, is a modest assessment.

I never thought he would hit more than 15 or 20 homers a year, Linares said. He deserves a lot of credit. He works more than anybody. He has the short limbs and quick hands, and if he can get to a ball, he can do something with it.

Altuve acknowledges that he has changed his game over the last few years to emphasize power.

Now, Im just looking to drive the ball, Altuve said earlier this year. Using that little adjustment has impacted my game big-time.

Still, the subject of homers makes him cringe.

I dont like talking about homers, he said earlier this week. Yes, I ended up with a lot of homers, and it makes me happy because youre helping your team.

I think as you get older you become, maybe, a little bit smarter. You know what theyve been doing to you the last couple of years. You know what youve got to go to look for. Last year theyve thrown me a certain pitch, and I was taking it. Now, I start swinging, so I think thats why maybe Im hitting some homers.

Biometrics has made more advances in the art of pitching than hitting, since the pitcher initiates the action and therefore has fewer variables to deal with than the batter receiving the pitch. The sum of a player such as Altuve, however, clearly is greater than the parts.

A body is a linked mechanical system, said Knudson, the Texas State professor. We transfer energy between body segments, and some of that force is hard to track because force is three-dimensional. If you apply it in the wrong direction, it can be counterproductive.

Hitting a baseball may be one of the most difficult things to do in sports. Its a complex, three-dimensional movement. Trying to understand it may be one of the most important questions in biomechanics. But the science is accelerating, and eventually well get there.

david.barron@chron.com

twitter.com/dfbarron

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Jose Altuves hitting is art, but its science, too - Houston Chronicle

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