Altuve's MVP year started on the first pitch
No player swung more on 0-0 counts than Astros' second baseman
The Astros led the Red Sox, 4-2, in Game 1 of last year's American League Division Series at raucous Minute Maid Park when Jose Altuve dug in. Holding his bat high, Altuve looked out and saw Chris Sale staring back at him. Altuve had already taken Sale deep in the first inning, part of a shocking back-to-back combo with Alex Bregman, but Sale was eager for revenge.
Boston's ace lefty reared back and went right at Altuve with his blazing, 96-mph fastball. Unfortunately for Sale, his heater caught the heart of the plate -- and Altuve is not one to sit on a hittable pitch.
In the blink of an eye, Altuve had his second dinger and the Astros were off and running. Nine days later, Altuve lashed a first-pitch, 100-mph fastball from Yankees closer Albertin Chapman to lead off the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 of the ALCS with a single. Moments later, Altuve was dashing around third to score the game-winning run on Carlos Correa's double.
Even two of the most electric fastballs in the game couldn't dissuade Altuve from going up hacking, and why should they? The sport's best pure hitter is never afraid to swing at the first pitch, and his ultra-aggressive approach has paid huge dividends as he has led the AL in hits for a record four straight seasons.
The numbers show Altuve is one of the most aggressive and adept hitters at attacking pitchers' opening salvos. But to find the big leagues' other most successful hitter on the first pitch last year, one doesn't need to look far down the AL batting race.
White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia finished runner-up to Altuve with a .330 average, and Statcast™ says he finished just behind Altuve in another category, too.
Most swings at first pitches of at-bats, 2017
- Altuve: 279
- Garcia: 272
- Marcell Ozuna: 271
- Corey Seager: 265
- Corey Dickerson: 264
Garcia swung at 48.5 percent of the first pitches he saw in 2017, which was actually more aggressive than Altuve (fourth-highest at 42 percent) and the 145 other hitters who logged at least 500 plate appearances. So, which hitter was better at attacking? Altuve led the Majors with 62 hits off first pitches, while Garcia was third with 45. But Garcia's .506 average when putting the first pitch in play ranked third among 153 qualified hitters, while Altuve's .449 mark was 14th-best.
Highest batting average on first-pitch balls in play, 2017 (min. 50 at-bats)
- Cesar Hernandez: .519
- Byron Buxton: .517
- Garcia: .506
- Yonder Alonso: .500
- Starlin Castro: .491
- Altuve: .449
Altuve enjoyed an edge over Garcia in two aspects of first-pitch hitting. The first was plate coverage, or rather, coverage beyond the plate. No one recorded more hits on first pitches thrown outside the boundaries of the strike zone than Altuve with 13, adding even more headaches for opposing pitchers. Here's Altuve muscling a first-pitch sinker on his hands from hapless Dennis Tepera into a broken-bat RBI single on July 6.
A hit like that makes a pitcher wonder how he's even supposed to attack the AL MVP.
Altuve's other advantage was power. He clubbed 10 home runs on the first pitches of at-bats last year, one behind Khris Davis, Joey Gallo and Joey Votto for the MLB lead. And then, of course, he ambushed Sale for that back-breaking first-pitch homer in October.
"That's kind of a buzzsaw right there," Sale said afterward. "We've seen all year what he can do."
The natural wonder is whether such a strategy is sustainable over the long run. Altuve and Garcia have grown more aggressive in first-pitch-swing percentage over the last three seasons. Both of them posted high averages on first pitches in 2015 and '16, though Garcia's .506 mark in '17 could be a candidate for regression (much like his overall .392 batting average on balls in play). It's worth noting that swinging at the first pitch did not appear to work for another AL MVP candidate, Aaron Judge, who posted the game's lowest percentage of balls put in play per swing at 22.6 percent and the 13th-highest whiff per swing rate at 35.8 percent.
Judge had his own paths to success, of course, and hacking at the first pitch isn't for everyone. It certainly does seem to be integral to Altuve's metronomic success, year after year. Perhaps it can be for Garcia moving forward, too.