Driven To Succeed
Nobody expected these results.
Like a lot of good scouts, Al Pedrique remembers the sound off the bat. A hard sound. The sound of a hitter.
It was the sound of the ball off Jose Altuve’s bat, a sound that Altuve couldn’t wait for Pedrique, then helping run the Astros’ international program as a special assistant to general manager Ed Wade, to hear.
“I was supposed to be in Venezuela, but I got stuck in the Dominican (Republic) for an extra night when my flight got canceled,” remembered Pedrique, who just wrapped the season managing Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the Yankees organization. “Our scouts in Venezuela had about 25 or 30 guys ready for a tryout camp, and they had to send them home because I couldn’t be there.
“Altuve told the scouts that he wanted to make sure he would get invited again. He wanted me to see him play. But our scouts told him to come back the next day. I got in early, around 7 or 8 o’clock, and he was there and ready to go.”
At this February 2007 workout, Altuve, who was 16 years old going on 17, ran the 60-yard dash, turning in plus times. Pedrique remembers saying, “For a small guy, he can fly.” He recalls Altuve’s defense was behind his bat, which was somewhat mitigated by that good sound in batting practice. He showed quick hands, surprising pop and the ability to drive the ball to right-center field.
Pedrique asked the scouts in the area to arrange a scrimmage to make sure he could see Altuve face live pitching, and by the end of the week he saw the diminutive Venezuelan in a game. He hit well, played second base, ran hard and handled himself well in all facets.
“He had confidence,” Pedrique remembers. “At the time, we thought he was a hot dog, but the more you watch him, that’s just his personality. He has a lot of confidence. That’s what got my attention—the confidence, his quick hands and how he swung the bat. I told the coaches at the workout, ‘Keep this kid, he can swing it.’ ”
The Astros kept after it and signed Altuve in March 2007. Ten years later, the 27-year-old has just completed his fourth straight season with 200 or more hits, leading the American League each year. He won his third batting title, posting a career-best slash line of .346/.410/.547 and tied his career high with 24 home runs while stealing 32 bases—his sixth straight season with 30 or more thefts.
He’s the confident 5-foot-6, 165-pound second baseman, in many ways the same traits Pedrique saw back in 2007. And now, after helping lead the Astros to a 101-win season, Altuve is Baseball America’s 2017 Major League Player of the Year.
Players of Altuve’s size and stature often get overlooked. Pedrique said the Astros’ scouts in Latin America, who’d had a long, successful run under Andres Reiner in Venezuela, generally preferred big-bodied players. That approach had worked with the Astros signing the likes of Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora and Carlos Guillen.
“Physically,” Pedrique said, “he just was not an Astros type of guy. It wasn’t one guy, it was a lot of people in the organization who didn’t know what to do with him.”
The organization’s internal doubts about Altuve continued even after he hit .324 with 21 stolen bases for Rookie-level Greeneville in 2009, and when he hit .308 in low Class A Lexington in 2010.
“I knew nothing about him until I watched him play in Rookie ball, and he stood out as the best player on the team,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who joined the organization after the 2011 season, said via email. “Fast forward a couple of years and he’s in the big leagues . . . Even then, for a last-place team, I wasn’t sure if he was here to stay. He showed up early for spring training and by the time the (next) season started, I felt confident we had an everyday player.”
Houston made Altuve a building block of its rebuild, signing him to a four-year, $12.5 million extension in 2013.
“We saw a guy who has incredible work ethic and was determined to have success playing the game he loves,” Luhnow said.
Pedrique foresaw Altuve being a big league hitter, but even he never saw this kind of home run power. “He’s made adjustments to his swing,” Pedrique said, “but that’s what the great hitters in the big leagues do, they keep adjusting, keep working.”
The key for Altuve remains his work ethic and that confidence Pedrique saw back when Altuve was still an amateur. And that sound—the sound off the bat produced by a pure hitter.
“To me it’s his ability to make contact on all pitches both in and out of the zone—that’s always been his special ability,” Luhnow said.
Where Are They Now?: Earl Cunningham
The Cubs drafted powerful South Carolina high school outfielder Earl Cunningham eighth overall in 1989, but he was stymied by strikeouts and never advanced past high Class A.
Contributing: J.J. Cooper, Matt Eddy