Few, if any, players in MLB right now look as ideal for the leadoff hitter role than Jose Altuve. The Houston Astros second baseman has led the league in hits for three straight seasons while winning a batting title in two of the last three campaigns. Altuve was also the league’s best base stealer in 2014 and 2015 before concentrating a little more on his home run stroke in 2016. He still managed to swipe another 30 bags on his way to becoming one of baseball’s most well-rounded stars.
Last year, the Astros decided that Altuve would hit somewhere else. They moved him from the first spot in the lineup to third and the result was great.
With Altuve moving down the order, George Springer took over as the primary leadoff hitter. It’s expected to continue this way in 2017 because Altuve has outgrown the sparkplug role. He has become far too important to the Astros’ success to not hit in the middle of the order.
The Astros started Altuve as the leadoff hitter 44 times in 2016. He managed to slash a tremendous .330/.415/.585. The OBP and slugging percentage were the best of any spot. The batting average fell only about 10 points lower than when he hit second or third.
Altuve was especially awesome in his first at-bat each game as the leadoff hitter. He was also somewhat surprisingly aggressive. When leading off the game, Altuve cracked six home runs and posted a .452/.477/.952 slash line. He drew just one walk in the 44 plate appearances, which is perfectly fine when the hits are coming so frequently. In Altuve’s case, they often do.
It should come as no surprise to learn that the 2016 performance as the Astros’ leadoff hitter was better than what Altuve has averaged in his career. Those numbers are unsustainable for a longer period of time. Still, he has always been pretty great when batting leadoff. In over 1,600 plate appearances as the Astros’ leadoff hitter, Altuve has slashed .314/.364/.450. These are numbers every team would want from their leadoff man. However, at this stage, Altuve is more valuable to the Astros in the three-hole.
Not many players possess the array of talents Altuve brings to the field. A noted speedster and keeper of hits, Altuve has developed into a power threat. His 5’6″ frame is more misleading than ever with the added power.
There is a great chance Altuve does one day return to batting leadoff. His style of play is still appropriate for the job. In the meantime, the Astros will follow the old baseball strategy of putting your best hitter in the third spot. As Altuve showed in 2016 with his third-place MVP finish, he can hit anywhere the Astros need him to.
By Tim Boyle