Outfielder Michael Brantley said his teammate was in a “great mental spot, great physical spot.”
Perhaps that’s the biggest positive development from the first week of Astros camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., where Altuve -- entering his 10th full season with Houston -- appears, according to his teammates, to be enjoying the game once again. That wasn’t always the case last year, when Altuve clearly wasn’t himself as he trudged through the worst season of his career.
Whether it was the fallout from the sign-stealing scandal or other issues that were affecting him mentally, Altuve is in a better frame of mind in 2021. The Astros are hoping that can translate into better results on the field, where he hit .219 -- nearly 100 points below his career average entering the season -- with five homers and 18 RBIs in 48 regular-season games last year.
“I’m doing everything possible that I can to be in the best shape and best mental position to help my team this year,” Altuve said.
Without giving any specifics, the 30-year-old Altuve said he put in a lot of work in the offseason to better himself both physically and mentally. Brantley picked up on it right away during a long talk with Altuve on the first day of camp. The two players have adjacent lockers.
“I expect big things out of him, and I know he expects big things out of himself,” Brantley said. “He looks great. He’s going around with a big smile on his face. It’s exciting.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker said Altuve is mentally strong but also has a sensitive side. He takes it personally when he doesn’t do well, and things began to snowball on him quickly on the field last year. While Altuve's bat started to come around in the playoffs, he appeared to get the yips on a few throws from second base in the American League Championship Series, and the infielder said he’s worked to address that, too.
“Last year was hard on him, hard on all of us,” Baker said. “There are things in life sometimes that people don’t think affect us, and then indeed they do. I didn’t know him [prior to last year]. I respected him from the other side of the field, but I see him singing and he has that bounce in his step and he appears happy. He’s going to have a big year for us.”
A look inside the numbers reveals the depths of Altuve’s struggles at the plate in 2020:
Altuve’s strikeout percentage, which was among the top 10 percent in the league in 2015-18, was 18.6 percent last season, jumping from 15 percent in ’19 and 13.2 percent in ’18. Meanwhile, his chase rate of 35.2 percent in ’20 was up dramatically from 30 percent in ’19, so he was much more undisciplined at the plate.
When he did make contact, it wasn’t on par with his career levels. Altuve’s expected batting average plummeted to .230, marking the fourth straight year it has fallen from his career high of .326 in 2016 (since Statcast began tracking in '15). That’s a far cry from the player who has won three AL batting titles and made six All-Star Game appearances.
“I think I just have a better approach and game plan,” Altuve said. “I feel like this year I have a game plan. I know what I want to do, and I think that’s going to help me a lot.”
And his teammates have already noticed.
“He looks incredible these first couple of days,” Gurriel said. “I’ve been surprised how good he looks this quickly in camp. He’s throwing super good. He has a really potent arm.”
Positive vibes in the early days of Spring Training are the norm, but the praise and hope for Altuve appear to be genuine. It will be up to him to prove 2020 was a fluke.
“That’s the one thing I have right now is motivation,” Altuve said. “I have a group of guys here that encourage each other to go out and play. I’m taking the encouragement and motivation right now. I think I like where I’m at right now, and I can be the guy my teammates need me to be.”