MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Altuve impresses as total All-Star package

Astros second baseman rates highly among game's elite players

Altuve impresses as total All-Star package

SAN DIEGO -- Astros second baseman Jose Altuve has arrived at his fourth All-Star Game presented by MasterCard with the same sense of wonder and expectation he brought to his first.

"You look around and see guys like Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout," Altuve said. "To be here with them is just great."

If that sounds like the kind of quote players always come up with in these situations, this one may be different. It might offer some insight into Altuve's greatness. In that way, he's a fairly simple player.

All-Star Game coverage begins tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

This, too, sounds like a cliche, but then things like working harder and being determined always are.

Here goes. Altuve is never satisfied. That's the thing you hear again and again from teammates and opponents alike.

Altuve is one of baseball's gold standards for work ethic and preparation. He simply is never satisfied. He finishes every season by assessing his strengths and weaknesses, and then spends almost every day of the offseason, working to improve.

Three years ago, Altuve believed his conditioning and nutrition could improve. He thought he could get faster and stronger. Altuve did and promptly won a batting title the following season by hitting .341. His average declined to .313 in 2015.

When it ended, Altuve decided to focus on pitch selection and driving the ball in hitter-friendly counts rather than being comfortable hitting it on the ground so often.

The results have been dramatic even for a player who was already one of the best on the planet. Altuve will take an American League-leading .341 batting average into Tuesday night when he'll hit leadoff for the AL team at Petco Park.

But that's just the beginning. Altuve's focus on being more selective has resulted in the best season of his career. He's leading the AL with 119 hits and has already drawn 41 walks, a career high.

That new approach has paid off with 14 home runs, one short of Altuve's career high in 2015. At his current pace, he'll finish his sixth season with MVP-type numbers: 217 hits, 44 doubles, 25 home runs, 42 stolen bases and 93 RBIs.

"We can't get him out," Angels center fielder Mike Trout said. "I don't think anybody can get him out. It's pretty impressive. People doubted him. He tries to prove people wrong, and that's what you've got to do."

Altuve's .413 on-base percentage this season is 36 points higher than his previous high, .377 in 2014. Likewise, his .954 OPS is a career best by a whopping 124 points.

While Altuve might win a second batting title at 26 and while he might lead the Astros back to a second straight postseason appearance, he's having the kind of complete season that may have him competing with Trout and Josh Donaldson for the AL MVP Award.

Back to basics: effort and determination.

"You're talking about one of the best players in the world," Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt said. "I feel like every at-bat is meaningful to him. He doesn't take any at-bats off. It's personal. He wants to hit the ball as hard as he can every at-bat. It's every at-bat, 600 of them in a year. He gets 200 hits a year because he never takes an at-bat off. It's a hard thing to do."

Altuve's entire professional career is a tribute to perseverance. When he began going to tryout camps in his native Venezuela, scouts consistently had two messages for him.

One is that Altuve had freakishly quick hands and the ability to get the bat head through the hitting zone faster than almost anyone they'd ever seen. On the other hand, he was only 5-foot-6, and that was that.

Even the Astros had to be convinced. Only when Altuve showed back up at their camp after being sent away did they finally take the plunge. He flew through the Minor Leagues and made his big league debut at 21 in 2011. After 757 games, Altuve's career batting average is .309.

One of his boyhood heroes, Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, said that Altuve should change the way teams scout players. If a baseball player has a certain skill set, it can more than make up for being, say, an inch or two too short.

"I love the way he plays," Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano said. "I love to see how he runs when he hits any ground ball. You can see the bottom of his feet every time. The effort is always there.

To Altuve it's simple. He can always get better. He can always work harder. He's still young. The best is yet to come.

"I'm trying to do everything I can to get better," Altuve said. "Maybe I'm trying to drive the ball more instead of just trying to put it in play. The longer you're in the league, you start learning a little bit more. I'm 26 years old, and I know as I keep getting older, I can get stronger."

Every once in awhile, a player comes along who simply does everything right, who prides himself on sweating the smallest stuff. That's Jose Altuve's story. This fourth All-Star appearance is more confirmation of that.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.