“I see it more in their action,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “These guys play with as much joy as anybody in the game. They have spirit. They bounce around. It’s fun to have that middle-of-the-field energy and performance.”
One of the most remarkable things about the 2018 Astros is that they won 103 games despite diminished production from two of their stars. Altuve played despite a broken right kneecap that required offseason surgery and weeks of intense rehabilitation. Correa’s back was so sore that his swing -- and his ability to generate hard contact -- was dramatically reduced.
Altuve missed 25 games, Correa 52. At times, Altuve was in so much pain that he would have to pause on the field and take a moment to gather his thoughts before soldiering on. He mostly played through the pain because the Astros believed that 60 or 70 percent or whatever of Altuve was better than almost any other player.
Altuve hit 33.8 percent of balls at least 95 mph in 2018, according to Statcast. This season, that number is up 49.1 percent. His 26 balls hit of 95 mph or better is the fifth-highest total in the Majors.
“What he was going through behind the scenes last year that nobody was really aware of,” Justin Verlander said, “it really speaks volumes to his character and the person that he is.”
Correa’s hard-hit contact frequency is up as well, from 33.4 percent in 2018 to 45.5 percent this season.
Altuve and Correa were big reasons the Astros went from scoring 5.5 runs per game during their World Series-winning season of 2017 to 4.9 during the 2018 regular season.
The duo are also why the Astros (11-5) are scary good at the moment and will take a nine-game winning streak into Tuesday night’s game against the A’s in Oakland. They’re scoring 5.8 runs per game during the streak.
Altuve is hitting .405 during the winning streak, Correa .303. Overall, Altuve’s 1.0 fWAR is tied for the fourth-highest in the American League, while Correa’s 0.7 fWAR is tied for 14th. Altuve’s 1.059 OPS is ninth-highest in the AL, while Correa is 20th at .942.
“It just feels good to get back to normal,” Correa said. “Last year was a very disappointing year for me because I couldn’t do the stuff I knew I was capable of doing. Right now, I feel like I’m Carlos Correa once again.”
Altuve’s last six games have been insanely good, six home runs in all, including a five-game stretch with at least one. His homer streak was snapped by the Mariners on Sunday. For the week, he led the AL in homers and total bases (28) and was third in OPS (1.527) and second in RBIs (10).
Altuve underwent surgery shortly after the Astros were eliminated from the AL postseason last fall and reported to Spring Training feeling thankful for a full recovery.
“To be able to play pain-free like I used to feel before my knee surgery, I’m just happy,” Altuve said last week, adding: “I don’t like talking about it. That’s over. That’s in the past.”
He deflected praise to his teammates, saying hitting in a lineup as deep as Houston’s contributed to his success and that watching, say, George Springer perform, drove him to even greater heights.
“That’s the kind of guy you want to follow,” Altuve said.
Altuve led the AL in hits four straight seasons before 2018 and has three batting titles and six All-Star appearances to his credit. Even in those seasons, he never had this kind of power surge at the beginning of a season.
“He works hard and he takes it personal when he doesn’t carry this team,” Hinch said. “I’ve said often times he’s like the perfect player. He’s very locked in on doing the right thing. That’s why he’s an MVP.”