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The joy of Jose Altuve's batting average

Or, why it's okay to love a stat that's fallen out of favor.

Scott Halleran

Jose Altuve's value is inexorably tied to his batting average. Batting average is one of the more overrated traditional baseball stats. It would logically follow, then, that Jose Altuve is overrated.

How dare you.

No, Altuve is one of the best things going in baseball. He's also rated properly, thank you very much, even if it's true that he's something of an average-dependent hitter. If he's not hitting .330, he probably isn't a star. That's true, but it's missing the joie de altuve entirely, though. It's possible to believe that batting average gets far too much attention and acknowledge the genius of Altuve, too. They're not mutually exclusive. A couple of truisms to explain how that's possible:

1. Batting average is still overused and overrated

If you're here, the odds are probably good that this is familiar ground, so I won't spend 1,000 words on it. But don't assume the rest of the world has forgotten about batting average. It's still the first thing on the scoreboard and the first thing on the mind of the person next to you at the game. It's still used. It's still revered.

The argument is always the same. Batting average is an incomplete picture. It's a Match.com profile picture that starts at the waist. Oh, those are nice shoes. Boy, the pleats in those pants, mmmf. But I'll need to see the top half before I'm making a superficial judgment and pursuing it any further. Same goes with average. There's only so much to learn from it, and it isn't nearly enough to evaluate a player.

2. There will always be room for players who transcend that first point

Recent examples include two of the most popular players in recent baseball history, Ichiro and Tony Gwynn. That those two players were extraordinarily popular is not a coincidence. Those players are part of a gilded, upper class of average-dependent player. This is a rare creature, the hyper-average player, and the ones who make the club are absolutely beloved.

Think about it like this: What happens when someone on your team gets a hit? If you're at the park, you clap and cheer. If you're at home alone, you ... well, that's your time. But you're excited. A player who does this more often than the other players is releasing more endorphins for you, making you clap and cheer more than the other slobs. It adds up over a season, and even if it should be hard to eyeball the difference between a .280 hitter and a .300 hitter, you have a sense of who's doing what. Those .300 hitters are usually fun to watch.

Guys like Ichiro and Gwynn were freaks, though. If you think of a player getting a hit as a happy-fun event, those guys were each a waterfall of happy-fun events. They were peerless in their ability to get a hit. Fans had extraordinarily high expectations every time they came to the plate, and they lived up to those expectations more than anyone else on the field.

The problems with batting average in the first point are negated once a player reaches this level. There's almost no way to hit .340 without being a productive player. Altuve has a .381 on-base percentage and a .458 slugging percentage. Those are good marks if he's hovering around the Mendoza Line. It doesn't matter what his isolated power is. It doesn't matter that he doesn't walk a lot. Why would you want him to walk a lot? Hits are more fun. You probably shouldn't hate fun so much.

If you think it's premature to assume that Altuve is in that Ichiro/Gwynn class, well, yes and no. Batting average is a fickle thing, and the record books are littered with past batting champions who couldn't keep it up. Josh Hamilton, Bill Mueller, and Freddy Sanchez couldn't stay in the Ichiro/Gwynn class. Conductor Luck checked their tickets and bounced them back downstairs with the rest of the good-but-not-Ichiro hitters.

On the other hand, it's just as unreasonable to guarantee that Altuve will never reach these heights again. He's 24 -- as young or younger than about a dozen of the players on Baseball America's top-100 list. He's eight months younger than George Springer. Yet Altuve is basically having a peak Tony Gwynn season as far as total value. It might not get much better for him, but it doesn't have to get worse, automatically. He doesn't have to be on an upward trajectory to stay amazing. He can plateau for the next six seasons and become a household name.

It helps to put Altuve's season in a different context. Take Ichiro's magical rookie season, 2001, in which he hit .350. The league average in 2001 was .267. Altuve is currently hitting .345, and the league is hitting .253. The happy-fun times are coming at a reduced rate for the rest of the league, which makes Altuve stand out even more.

Or, to use the fun Baseball-Reference toy again, here's a guess at what Altuve's season would have looked like for an average team in 2000.

altuve


If anything, the current era is making Altuve underrated. In another season, we might have breathlessly followed the chase for .400. He'd threaten Ichiro's single-season hits record, possibly.

Batting average can still confuse us. Ben Revere is having one of the emptiest .300 seasons we've seen since his last one, and he's the counterargument to Altuve. However, once a player breaks the ceiling -- we'll call it the Michael Young ceiling -- and ascends into the stratosphere with players like Carew, Boggs, Gwynn, and Ichiro, that player becomes an icon.

We're years, if not a decade, away from seeing if Altuve is that kind of player. But if you're wondering why you're having so much fun right now, that's the reason. Batting average is stupid. All hail batting average. If this is the real Altuve, we're going to have a lot of fun over the next few years.