LOS ANGELES — Lance McCullers Jr. has a plea for headline writers framing the 2017 World Series. His Houston Astros teammate, Jose Altuve, will probably do something wondrous against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And McCullers knows what some folks will say.
“When Altuve does it, it’s kind of like, ‘Altuve, although super small, has success,’ or whatever the case may be,” said McCullers, the pitcher who closed out the American League playoffs to give Houston a chance for its first title.
“I just think people should take it for what it is and really enjoy what he brings to this game,” McCullers continued. “He’s beyond the point now where you have to say, ‘This guy’s so small and does great things,’ because he’s been doing it for years. I think we should just focus on: This is a Hall of Fame guy we’re watching.”
Point taken. As Altuve has risen to the ranks of the majors’ elite, we have written feature stories only parenthetically referencing that he is 5 feet 6 inches. And yet, well, this is the World Series. Besides the occasional David Eckstein, Phil Rizzuto or Rabbit Maranville, we rarely see stars so small on a stage so large.
“In baseball, it doesn’t matter if you’re tall, skinny, fat, whatever,” Altuve said on Monday. “If you really have talent and you really love to play, I feel like you can make it.”
Altuve’s all-around skills have made him, in the words of Astros Manager A. J. Hinch, the game’s 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.
“He hit .500 for a whole month this year,” Astros catcher Brian McCann said, referring accurately to Altuve’s torrid stretch from June 27 through July 27. “He’s playing a different game. I did that in high school.”
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 — Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron — had more hits through their age-27 season.
Dallas Keuchel, the Astros’ 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 Astros’ 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 Altuve’s nonstop chatter in the back of the bus and thinking it sounded as if he had not yet hit puberty.
“He sounded like he shouldn’t even have been playing baseball,” 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.
“I didn’t know that he was going to actually be this good,” Keuchel said. “I thought he was going to be an All-Star, but to win the M.V.P., which he should — and honestly, he should have been in the race the last three or four years — and I couldn’t be happier for the guy, because he is an all-American dude.”
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 — Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki — could not have looked more different: Gwynn lumbering (in later years), Suzuki forever lithe.
When physical outliers play with Altuve’s verve, their appeal can be irresistible.
“I bet kids disproportionately love Jose Altuve, like kids disproportionately loved Kirby Puckett and Ozzie Smith,” said the broadcaster Bob Costas, citing undersized but spirited Hall of Famers. “Their size makes them stand out, and their energy and joy transmits easily. If you’re 9 years old, you’re not deeply into analytics — but you can deeply appreciate those guys.”
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 doesn’t always matter.
“Not in baseball, if you have the ability,” said Dave Hudgens, the Astros’ hitting coach. “And 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 he’s developed the knee-cock, which has enabled him to hit for more power.”
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.
“It’s never enough for him,” Gonzalez said. “He says that there’s always room to get better, and I believe it.”
That first batting title heralded so much to come. Altuve clinched it on the final day of the season — 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 Detroit’s Victor Martinez, who could not have closed the gap without a big day.
“He didn’t want to win it that easy,” Gonzalez said. “He worked a lot for that. Everybody was telling him in the clubhouse, ‘Just sit down, it wasn’t necessary, you don’t know when you’re going to have that opportunity.’ Some players just win one batting title, and that’s it. But he didn’t listen to us. He went out there and competed, and that’s what he does every day.”
Three years earlier at Citi Field, the Mets’ 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.
“I played 150-something games; I don’t think the last one would have made the difference,” he said. “If you want to win something, I don’t think it would be very honest if I would have sat down that day. If I sat down, it would have been automatic. I don’t think Victor had any chance of catching me. That’s why I was like, ‘We got to play fair. I have to go out there and play, because he’s playing that day.’”
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. Altuve’s career has ascended ever since, and now he has reached another peak.