Mint 2B: Altuve Second To None

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- At around 8:15 Thursday morning, after doing early work before his day really begins, five hours before the Astros will play the Nationals for the second time this week at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, one of the best baseball players on the planet, on his way to being one of the best of all-time, comes walking into Houston's clubhouse. That would be Jose Altuve. He is the team's second baseman, and one whose name belongs in the first paragraph of any story about the young stars of his sport. 

Not because Altuve is already one of the great small players in baseball history. Just because he is great. We talk all the time about Mike Trout and Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant and Manny Machado and everybody else making this the most talent-rich time for young stars in all of baseball history. But the kid from the Astros, somehow about to begin his seventh season in the big leagues even though he doesn't turn 27 until May 6 (Willie Mays' birthday as well), is right there with any of them. If people still just want to talk about him being small, 5-foot-6 (as listed on the Astros' roster), they truly are missing the big picture.

"Back in the day," Altuve says in front of his locker, "when I am still in the Minor Leagues, I used to think about size, but only because I wondered if people would really be able to see what I could do. But I never doubted myself. Never. Never doubted what I could do. It didn't matter to me how tall I was. I just wanted to be great."

A few minutes later, down the hall from the clubhouse, Astros manager A.J. Hinch is talking about his biggest young talent, on a team that has its fair share of that, with Carlos Correa and George Springer and their newest kid, Alex Bregman.

"[Altuve] is remarkable," Hinch said.

Then Hinch tells a story about the 2015 postseason, after the Astros lost to the Royals in five games in the American League Division Series. Altuve only hit .136 in the series, three hits, one RBI, two runs scored. Hinch says that when Game 5 of the ALDS was over, an emotional Altuve came into his manager's office and said that he wished he could have done so much better.

"I'm the reason we lost," Altuve said.

Hinch looked at him. "No," he said. "You're the reason we're here."

Once Joe Morgan, 5-foot-7, began his career at second base for the Colt .45's, before becoming a true giant of his sport with the Cincinnati Reds. In Morgan's all-around best season with the Reds, in 1976, he hit 27 home runs, had 111 RBIs, batted .320, scored 113 runs, had 151 hits in 141 games, had a .576 slugging percentage, a .444 on-base percentage, an OPS of 1.020. And stole 60 bases. And won his second straight National League Most Valuable Player Award, on his way at a full speed to Cooperstown by then, on one of the most famous baseball teams of them all.

Here is what Jose Altuve did last season, the one during which he turned just 26: He hit 24 home runs, knocked in 96, batted .338, had a .531 slugging percentage, a .396 on-base percentage, a .928 OPS. And had 216 hits, the third straight year when he has reached 200. And stole 30 bases. And was third in AL MVP Award voting, as he keeps showing the world that there is nothing even someone as great as Joe Morgan could do on a baseball field that he could not.

People could see Joe Morgan just fine, even at his size, even playing on the same team with Pete Rose and Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. Maybe the world just needs to do a better job of seeing what Jose Altuve is doing in Houston, seeing that he has made the All-Star team four times already, won two batting championships and has more hits than anybody in his sport from 2013-16. Altuve has 818 hits in that time, by the way. Robinson Cano is second to him with 751. It is also worth pointing out that Altuve is only the fifth second baseman to ever have three 200-hit seasons. The other four with at least that many -- Charlie Gehringer, Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Billy Herman -- are all in the Hall of Fame. 

Still the kid would rather talk about all the young talent in his game, not merely his own.

"I am really proud to be a part of everything that is happening in our sport right now," Altuve says. "It is not just the young talent. It is all the talent. It is [Kris] Bryant and Mike Trout. But it is an all-time great like Miguel Cabrera, too." Altuve points down the row to where Carlos Beltran, back with the Astros this season, is beginning to dress. "It is Carlos Beltran."

I tell Altuve that his tone of voice as he says Beltran's name makes it sound as if he is talking about baseball royalty. The kid smiles and says, "To me, he is."

Then he is talking about the other young talent in the room, and how the Astros have added Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick as they try to make it back to the postseason after missing it in 2016.

"We had a winning record last season," Altuve says, "but it wasn't enough, because we didn't make it to the playoffs. We keep trying to get better and better here. I think we have a chance this season to be better than we've ever been."

So, of course, does he. Altuve hit .290 his first full season in the big leagues, then .283, then .341, then .313, then .338. The most hits Hall of Fame Astro Craig Biggio had in a single season were 210. Altuve has already beaten that twice. And he doesn't turn 27 until Willie Mays' birthday.

I ask Altuve on Thursday morning if it is difficult to process sometimes that if he stays healthy, he is about to play his sixth full season in Houston. He smiles and says, "Sometimes you say to yourself, 'Wow, time goes quick.'"

Then he says: "It's never how much time you've had. It's what you've done with it."

Trout was the AL MVP Award winner last season, you bet, and Betts was right behind him. But take another look at what Altuve did and then put it up against Trout, who hit .315 and scored 123 runs, who had 30 stolen bases and a .441 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage and 29 homers and 100 RBIs. 

Of course, Trout is all those numbers. Trout is all that. Just don't leave Jose Altuve out of the conversation. He's all that, too. On his way to being all-time. Big time for the little guy.

Source : http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/217673980/jose-altuve-size-star-all-time-astros

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