I love watching Jose Altuve hit. There’s a ton to love. He’s the little guy who fights. He’s the scrappy leader on an up-and-coming team. He can flat-out rake. He hits everything. He’s his own unit of measurement. That’s all fine and dandy. That’s not specifically why I love him. I love him because he has the potential to be the model hitter for the current generation of kids.
I grew up in the '90s so naturally I tried to hit like Ken Griffey Jr. I think every kid put their hat on backwards at least once and hit a whiffle ball into the imaginary third deck of the Kingdome in their backyard. As Junior's allure faded, a new model jumped to the forefront. Suddenly Albert Pujols became the way to hit. The backwards hat and upright posture was replaced by the wide stance and no stride (even though Albert has always had a stride). This model has stuck over the years.
In the '90s the hot term was "swing down at the ball." In fact, Griffey even had a tee designed to teach this bat path. This is still taught, unfortunately, but it has been usurped by the term "get the foot down early." The thinking is that getting the foot down will create balance, reduce strikeouts through better bat control, and allow hitters to hit the opposite way by not flying open. All those points are incorrect but that hasn’t stopped a slew of coaches from teaching the method.
Altuve used to be a prime example of getting his foot down early. He did all the stuff coaches hope to see when they teach this move. He was also small enough for them to to relate to their own players. If a smart player pointed out to his coach that Trout and Cabrera both had actual leg lifts, the coach could counter by pointing out their extreme size and strength. Altuve had the right size and set of mechanics to be a teaching point for younger players.
Altuve was a .280 hitter with that stride pattern. He’s a .340 hitter now. He’s hitting for more power and striking out less. What changed? Like Josh Donaldson, Carlos Gomez, Jose Bautista, and J.D. Martinez, Altuve simply added a leg lift. A leg lift in and of itself is not an instant fix for a hitter. The real aid of a proper leg lift is what occurs inside a swing when the lift is properly executed.
The biggest improvement a leg lift gives a hitter is timing. One of the biggest decisions a hitter has to make is when to swing the bat. With a leg lift, a hitter simply launches the swing when his foot touches down. The foot touching down is the trigger.
By contrast, if the foot is already down, the trigger is a point in the flight of the ball: Once the ball crosses a certain point you launch the swing. The difference between the two is that a leg lift gives the hitter an internal trigger and the foot-down-early method is based on an external trigger.
Most hitters would rather have a trigger they control vs one where the pitcher is in charge. Beyond timing issues there are a host of mechanical issues that arise when hitters get their foot down too early. Weight transfer is very difficult to achieve when you plant the foot into the ground early. Hitting breaking balls is also tough with that striding pattern as most hitters bend at the torso as they launch the bat to try and match the break of the breaking balls. The torso does need to bend but it should be done before contact, not during. An easy way to see this is to watch how hitters who land too early tend to have their hips sliding behind them as they hit the ball.
Let’s get to the hitter himself.
Coming into 2014, Altuve added a simple leg kick. He starts his stride plenty early. Typically he’ll get the front leg in the air as the pitchers arm begins to turn over and come forward. It’s not as dramatic as Bautista’s or Donaldson's but it is still effective.
Watch how his body moves after his foot touches down in 2013 versus 2014. In 2013 his timing has to be perfect: He has to precisely time his front hip moving forward with the rotation of his upper body. Making this movement pattern even worse is the behavior of his back foot. He gets on the toe of his back foot extremely early. There is a point in his swing where both feet are touching the ground with only their toes. Hitters never want to be in this position because it’s hard to fire the lower body and even harder to balance.
Last year, Altuve put himself in a very bad position to hit anything on the outer third, especially if it had break. His lower body had nothing left to drive and his only hope was to spin and rely on his insane hand-eye coordination.
The 2014 Altuve puts the earlier version to shame. His new leg lift erases the problems from his prior stride. His hips stop moving forward after his front foot lands. He is able to keep his back heel down until it is forced up. This gives him more balance and better plate coverage. His new leg lift has given him an easier way to time the baseball. He’s also improved the timing of his swing. Everything fires when it should.
The improvement in his lower body helped his swing because his upper body was already near ideal. His arms are rotated to the zone by his torso and his hands aren’t pushing forward. There is no extraneous movement of either his arms or hands, which creates a movement pattern that is very easy to repeat.
Hot and cold zones are great to show how changing mechanics actually alters performance. (I promise I made all my mechanical notes before consulting the Brooks Baseball charts below.)
I mentioned that Altuve's pre-2014 swing should be weak against breaking balls. In 2013, he hit .285 and .260 against sliders and curveballs respectively. In 2014 he hit .331 and .563 against those same pitches. I also mentioned that his pre-2104 stride would leave him vulnerable against pitches on the outer third of the plate. In 2013 he hit . 284 against strikes on the outer third. In 2014 he hit .346 in that same location. Below are the heat maps for both years against all pitch types.
When Altuve faced a breaking ball on the outside edge before 2014, he was toast. He hit .230 against breaking balls on the outside corner. Flash forward a year and he’s mashing those same pitches at a .424 clip. Here’s his heatmap against all breaking pitches for the past two seasons.
Altuve is a great teaching model for kids. He elevated himself to one of the best hitters in the game with the help of a new and improved stride. He has all the ingredients kids would want to model their swing after. This is why I love Altuve. Very few people can have the athletic swagger of Griffey or the Terminator-like efficiency of Pujols. Nearly everybody can relate to Jose Atluve. He’s just a guy who loves to hit baseballs and now he’s found a better way to go about the craft he loves.