HOUSTON — Under sunny skies on an unusually cool afternoon for this territory, Jose Altuve stepped into the batting box at Minute Maid Park and demanded answers from an empty stadium.
Mired in the worst rut of his playoff career, hitless in all three games to start this postseason, Altuve practiced live batting in Tuesday’s practice ahead of the American League Championship Series. , a sight as rare at this time of year as high 60s temperatures in Southeast Texas.
Still, in Altuve’s mind, the extra work was necessary. One of the best players of his generation largely for his hot streaks this time of year, Altuve has been in an unusually frosty spell, going 0 for 16 in the ALDS against the Mariners, including 0 for 8 in ALDS Game 3, the 18-round marathon that Houston survived.
What, in his mind, gives?
“I wasn’t focused on getting my shot, and that’s what I’ve been working on over the season and throughout the season and what’s worked for me,” Altuve said. . “And I didn’t do that in those first three games.”
It’s not just that Altuve lacked results, it’s that he looked completely out of whack in the process, and the Mariners exploited him throughout by throwing virtually everything out of the area when he became clear that he would continue. The formula was self-explanatory – fastballs well inside on his hands and breaking balls away from the plate – and it worked perfectly.
The most egregious example was Altuve’s strikeout against two fastballs in Game 3, one from George Kirby and the other from Paul Sewald, which were each at least four inches above the area. Throughout the past week, the second shot could have essentially been the third given the way he was chasing.
Altuve has always had the chase in his swing — he’s ranked in the 55th percentile this year, according to Statcast, the best of his career — but that detriment also makes him one of the best hitters in the game because he is always on offense, and as such, one of the more uncomfortable bats. Ten of his 28 home runs came on the first pitch of the regular season, an MLB high, and he had a slash of .368/.385/.755 (1.140 OPS) going 0-0.
“I’m the type of guy to stay positive, calm, no matter the situation,” Altuve said. “I like to go out there and play my game, regardless of the outcome.”
Every batter’s process is different, but the approach becomes more dissected when the struggles are more pronounced. Altuve’s longest drought is 0 for 19, both in the playoffs (his last 19 at bats in the 2015 ALDS) and in the regular season, from Aug. 30 to Sept. 30. On December 5, 2018, while playing due to an avulsion fracture of the patella in his right knee which required surgery during the offseason. He has come a long way between the two.
“Mentally strong people have a way of dealing with downtime,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We just have to increase focus and concentration. And when you’re in a downward spiral, man, sometimes it’s hard to get out. I don’t care who you are. But I expect great things from Altuve, because he expects great things from himself.
Altuve had never taken more than seven at-bats in a game before, let alone had nothing to show for it. Only one other player in playoff history has gone hitless with that many at-bats in a single game, Boston’s Xander Bogaerts in Game 3 of the historic 2018 World Series that lasted 18 innings.
But enough of the unflattering superlatives. The Astros were able to overcome Altuve’s struggles thanks to the contributors behind him, underscoring the depth of Houston’s roster.
“I think that says a lot,” right fielder Kyle Tucker said. “We don’t have to depend on just one person. If somebody’s struggling, there’s always eight guys behind them who can get up there and do the job. … But I’m not worried about José at all. He will come.
Receiver Martín Maldonado was even more blunt, saying: “Do you think it’s a crisis? A few bad games, I would say. I don’t see this as a crisis. This guy has always been able to hit a baseball. Just a few bad matches.
Confidence in Altuve rests on his pedigree – especially in the playoffs, where his 23 home runs rank second all-time, behind only Manny Ramirez’s 29, and 80 games played among active players, only Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, who has just retired. .
If there’s anyone who can pull off a lickety split funk, it’s Altuve.
“I worked on my area of the pitch, staying in the area and staying confident,” Altuve said. “It’s a new series and we’re starting from scratch and that’s a good thing.”