At a listed five-foot-five, Houston's Jose Altuve faces an uphill climb to big league success. He's the most vertically-challenged hitter in the majors since Al Montreuil had a cup of coffee with the Cubs four decades ago. And the list of short guys with good bats and meaningful careers is, well, short. According to Baseball-Reference, Topsy Hartsel, Willie Keeler, Bill Keister, Charlie Duffee and Albie Pearson are the only batters standing 5-foot-5 or under with at least a league-average OPS while getting at least 2,000 career plate appearances. The first four of those fellows began their careers before the Spanish-American War and the Wright Brothers' famous flight.
While Altuve has a tall task in front of him, he raked in the minors (.327/.326/.481) and has shown improvement with Houston in 2012 after a shaky rookie stint last year. Altuve had an 81 OPS+ in 2011. But in 2012, he has a 174 OPS+. A major reason for the uptick is improved plate patience: Altuve has already drawn seven walks in 77 plate appearances after taking just five free passes in 234 plate appearances in 2011.
Altuve has one of the smallest natural strike zones this side of Eddie Gaedel, but he made it much bigger than it had to be last year by swinging at anything from his eyes to his ankles:
The Astros' second baseman swung at 42% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, one of the ten highest rates in the majors and much higher than the 28% MLB average. This year, however, Altuve is showing a far more selective approach at the plate:
His chase rate is down to 23% in 2012. That, combined with a decrease in his number of cuts on in-zone pitches, means that Altuve has boosted his average number of pitches seen per plate appearance from 3.06 last year to 3.92 (the MLB average is about 3.8). History shows it's hard for little guys to last in the majors. But Altuve could have a long, productive career if he can complement his contact skills with a good eye.