Altuveâs all-around skills have made him, in the words of Astros Manager A. J. Hinch, the gameâs perfect player. This season, he led the majors in hitting at .346 while delivering 24 homers, 32 stolen bases and his usual stellar defense at second base. Teammates and opponents marvel at his uncanny ability to strike any pitch, anywhere, with the barrel of the bat.
âHe hit .500 for a whole month this year,â Astros catcher Brian McCann said, referring accurately to Altuveâs torrid stretch from June 27 through July 27. âHeâs playing a different game. I did that in high school.â
As for the Hall of Fame, McCullers was not overstating things. Altuve, 27, has 1,250 hits in his career. Only three players in the top 10 list â Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron â had more hits through their age-27 season.
Dallas Keuchel, the Astrosâ Game 1 starter on Tuesday, said Altuve had the best hand-eye coordination he had ever seen. They were teammates on the Tri-City ValleyCats, the Astrosâ affiliate in Troy, N.Y., in 2009. Altuve was 19 then and in his third pro season after signing from Venezuela for just $15,000 (no other teams had shown interest). Keuchel remembers hearing Altuveâs nonstop chatter in the back of the bus and thinking it sounded as if he had not yet hit puberty.
âHe sounded like he shouldnât even have been playing baseball,â Keuchel said, but the more they played together, with the Lancaster JetHawks and the Corpus Christi Hooks, the more those hand-eye skills signaled stardom.
âI didnât know that he was going to actually be this good,â Keuchel said. âI thought he was going to be an All-Star, but to win the M.V.P., which he should â and honestly, he should have been in the race the last three or four years â and I couldnât be happier for the guy, because he is an all-American dude.â
An All-American dude, you could say, who represents the essence of the All-American game. Walk past an N.F.L. or N.B.A. star on the street, and chances are you could guess his profession. With most of the best baseball players, you would never know.
Chris Sale, the strikeout king of the Boston Red Sox, is a string bean: 6-6 and 180 pounds. Dustin Pedroia, the longtime Boston second baseman whom Altuve called an inspiration, is easily shorter than his listed height of 5-9. The greatest pure hitters of modern times â Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki â could not have looked more different: Gwynn lumbering (in later years), Suzuki forever lithe.
When physical outliers play with Altuveâs verve, their appeal can be irresistible.
âI bet kids disproportionately love Jose Altuve, like kids disproportionately loved Kirby Puckett and Ozzie Smith,â said the broadcaster Bob Costas, citing undersized but spirited Hall of Famers. âTheir size makes them stand out, and their energy and joy transmits easily. If youâre 9 years old, youâre not deeply into analytics â but you can deeply appreciate those guys.â
Naturally, Altuve grades high analytically: According to Baseball Reference, , only Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson have compiled more wins above replacement among position players over the last four seasons. This year Altuve ranked first, just ahead of Aaron Judge, the hulking Yankees slugger.
Size can help, clearly, but for such highly specialized skills, it doesnât always matter.
âNot in baseball, if you have the ability,â said Dave Hudgens, the Astrosâ hitting coach. âAnd the thing about Jose, too, is that pound for pound, he might be the strongest guy in the league. Incredibly strong. He squats 400 pounds, his core is really strong, and heâs developed the knee-cock, which has enabled him to hit for more power.â
Marwin Gonzalez, the utility player who led the Astros in runs batted in this season with 90, has known Altuve since they played in the Venezuelan winter league at 17. He remembers Altuve adding that power-hitting technique after already winning the first of his three major league batting titles, with a .341 average in 2014. Altuve hit seven homers that season, and 24 in each of the last two.
âItâs never enough for him,â Gonzalez said. âHe says that thereâs always room to get better, and I believe it.â
That first batting title heralded so much to come. Altuve clinched it on the final day of the season â the very last day before the Astros made their move from 92-loss also-rans to a wild-card winner and a perennial contender. Of the 13 players the Astros used that afternoon against the Mets, only Altuve is on the World Series roster.
Gonzalez was on the bench that day and remembers how teammates urged Altuve to sit out. He was hitting .340, three points better than Detroitâs Victor Martinez, who could not have closed the gap without a big day.
âHe didnât want to win it that easy,â Gonzalez said. âHe worked a lot for that. Everybody was telling him in the clubhouse, âJust sit down, it wasnât necessary, you donât know when youâre going to have that opportunity.â Some players just win one batting title, and thatâs it. But he didnât listen to us. He went out there and competed, and thatâs what he does every day.â
Three years earlier at Citi Field, the Metsâ Jose Reyes had left the season finale after a first-inning bunt single ensured him the batting title. Altuve played the full game in 2014, went 2 for 4 and said he never considered asking out.
âI played 150-something games; I donât think the last one would have made the difference,â he said. âIf you want to win something, I donât think it would be very honest if I would have sat down that day. If I sat down, it would have been automatic. I donât think Victor had any chance of catching me. Thatâs why I was like, âWe got to play fair. I have to go out there and play, because heâs playing that day.ââ
As valiant final-day performances go, it does not quite rank with Ted Williams in 1941, when he risked losing a .400 average and instead rapped six hits in a doubleheader to finish at .406. But it symbolized something powerful in its simplicity: a desire just to play, for the sake of the game and the integrity of the competition.
The baseball gods must have looked on approvingly. Altuveâs career has ascended ever since, and now he has reached another peak.