Despite Small Stature, Altuve Grows On Astros
LANCASTER, Calif.—When Jose Altuve arrived in the California League last summer, he roamed about the Lancaster clubhouse like an excited young boy. Some thought he was, standing at 5-foot-7.
It was then clarified he was the Astros' high class A affiliate's new second baseman, fresh off a late-season promotion from low Class A.
The confusion was nothing out of the ordinary for Altuve, who stopped growing in his early teens. Ever since, his ability on a baseball field has been second-guessed. Along the way, he's silenced the skeptics—both outside and even inside the organization.
Less than two weeks into his arrival at Lancaster last year, Altuve hit a walk-off grand slam, then was greeted inside the clubhouse to an ovation by his teammates. At the time, Altuve described the moment as the best in his career.
That was until his next promotion.
Making his Double-A debut with Corpus Christi in early June, Altuve collected three hits highlighted by a home run, drove in three runs and scored one.
"That day I felt kinda nervous at a new level," he said. "Then after my first at-bat, I felt good."
Midway through a long, 12-game homestand in the last week of June, Hooks manager Tom Lawless requested Altuve's presence in his office. Spending portions of the past two years working together, Altuve, 21, had become very familiar with his manager's sarcastic personality. So when Lawless reached out his hand and said, "You've been selected to play in the Futures Game. Congratulations," Altuve laughed.
The second attempt at sharing the news was taken serious.
"He was very excited," Lawless said. "I could tell by the smile across his face. It went from side to side. It's a big honor."
Lawless, a former major leaguer, has a unique connection to his second baseman. Not only did he play the same infield positions, but the two are very similar in stature, most notably vertically. Lawless knows firsthand the doubt players like he and Altuve must overcome.
"You have to work every day to prove to everybody that you can play and you belong," he said.
In the Astros media guide, Altuve is listed at 5-foot-7, 168 pounds. A quick look at him and it's easy to conclude the numbers are likely embellished.
The statistics he has compiled this season also appear exaggerated, though these figures are not. A week before playing in the Futures Game as a member of the World squad, his overall .385 average was not only tops in the Astros organization, but all of the minor leagues.
In 52 games in the California League. he hit .408 and since his promotion to Double-A he has maintained the rhythm, hitting .362 in 31 games. Overall this season, Altuve was hitting .385/.423/.585 with nine home runs and had struck out just 38 times in over 350 plate appearances.
Since signing with the Astros in 2007, he has proven to scouts he is patient at the plate, consistent in the field and quick on the basepaths.
"He's a guy that has just played himself, over the past couple of years, into the picture," Astros farm director Fred Nelson said. "He's not a real big physical specimen and with that sometimes there are doubts about guys' long range abilities, but he's played so well each place he's gone."
Astros executives are proud to have Altuve represent the organization in this year's minor league showcase. General manager Ed Wade made a personal phone call to Altuve to congratulate him, Nelson praised Altuve, and scouting director Bobby Heck admitted, "We have underestimated his ability and strength."
"He's a highly skilled player," Heck said. "We have to be open-minded about talent. It doesn't matter what talent looks like."
Two of the last three Astros players (Jason Castro and Jordan Lyles) named to the Futures Game were in the big leagues the following season.
"Now I'm going to that game," Altuve said. "People have been telling me that (Castro and Lyles) played in the Futures Game and now they are in the big leagues and that is going to be you, and I said, 'OK. I'm excited about that.' "
During the winter months, Altuve returned home to play in the Venezuelan League. As the second baseman for the Navegantes del Magallanes, Altuve played with and against current major leaguers. His teammates included Rangers shortstop Andres Blanco, Blue Jays outfielder Juan Rivera and Angels third baseman Alberto Callaspo.
"They help me with a lot of things," Altuve said about playing with big leaguers. "They tell me a lot and I watch the way they play. They've showed me you got to slow down the game a little bit; make one out before the second out."
Altuve is small, but his game is just the opposite. Nelson joked that, the more success Altuve has, the taller he seems to become.
"If he keeps hitting he's gonna be about 5-10," Nelson joked. "He's gonna keep growing.
"We recognize he is small in stature and not a lot of guys his size are playing in the big leagues. But we've come to find out he is a special type of person. He's going to have to prove to us he can't play now. He's shown he can play. And if he continues to play this way I don't see why he couldn't reach the big leagues."
Jason Gonzalez is the associate sports editor at the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif.