February 22, 2024

Jose Altuve’s recent extension will determine all-time status


Jose Altuve might already be the greatest second baseman of his generation, but it’s debatable. It depends on which metrics you choose, how much you prefer offense over defense, and how heavily you consider postseason success (and postseason scandal).

But Altuve undoubtedly is in the conversation, an iconic player in his position for more than a decade. What happens in the next six years could settle the matter once and for all.

On Tuesday, Altuve agreed to a five-year, $125 million contract extension that will likely keep the eight-time All-Star with the Houston Astros for the entirety of his career. He turns 34 in May, the extension begins in 2025, and it will carry him through his age-39 season. He might have as much as one-third of his career ahead of him.

But for many of Altuve’s second-base contemporaries, the line in the sand came at this very same moment: the age-34 season.

Dustin Pedroia hit .293 on a bad knee at age 33, but he played only nine major-league games after that. Chase Utley and Ian Kinsler remained well-above-average hitters at 34 — 126 and 122 OPS+, respectively — but they combined for just one even slightly above-average offensive season at 35 or older. Robinson Canó made his eighth All-Star team at 34 but was suspended for steroids at 35 and became basically an afterthought for the rest of his career. Even the Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar — to extend this discussion to the greatest second basemen of the previous generation — hit 20 home runs, won a Gold Glove, and finished fourth in MVP voting at 33. But after that, he hit another 20 home runs and played barely above replacement level for the rest of his career.

Now, as Altuve enters the proving ground of his mid-to-late 30s, he’s the last of the truly established second basemen. He is, of course, younger than the rest — Altuve made his debut eight years after Utley and five years after Pedroia and Kinsler — so it makes sense that he would be the one still standing, but he also stands alone in today’s game.

When MLB Network last month ranked baseball’s top 10 current second basemen, Altuve was second only to Mookie Betts, a career right fielder just now moving semi-permanently to the infield. The only other active everyday second baseman who has even half of Altuve’s 52.6 career fWAR is Marcus Semien, and he remains more than 20 WAR behind him (and Semien’s only a year younger). There is a more-than-30-fWAR gap between Altuve and Ketel Marte, Whit Merrifield or Ozzie Albies. The next name in the conversation of greatness at second base might not even be in the big leagues yet.

And so, what lies ahead for Altuve are six years of standalone achievement to determine how high he can climb among his retired peers and, indeed, among the all-time greats. And it hinges specifically on how long he can keep going at this pace. The years ahead are the ones Pedroia never got to play. They’re the years in which Canó made himself obsolete, in which Utley and Kinsler became role players, and in which even Alomar became a non-factor.

These are the current career numbers and achievements for Altuve, as well as those of his contemporaries — plus a few from the previous generation — when they, too, had just finished their age-33 season.

Second basemen through age 33

Player

  

OPS+

  

bWAR

  

fWAR

  

All-Star Games

  

Gold Gloves

  

Rings

  

129

49.3

52.6

8

1

2

114

52.5

45.1

4

4

2

110

44.8

37.8

4

0

0

127

61.6

51.0

7

2

1

126

55.0

52.0

5

0

1

122

34.8

33.4

3

0

0

124

56.2

53.5

7

4

0

121

67.3

62.6

12

10

2

Altuve, Pedroia and Kent each won an MVP award before the age of 33. Pedroia was a Rookie of the Year; Canó had five top-six MVP finishes; Canó and Biggio had five Silver Sluggers apiece; Alomar and Utley had four. Altuve already has six. Whatever your preferred flavor of second-base excellence, there’s a lot to like about this list, and certainly, Altuve fits within it. He’s on an elite trajectory.

But here’s how much value those other second basemen accumulated beyond their age-33 season.

Second basemen after age 33

Player

  

OPS+

  

fWAR

  

3 fWAR seasons

  

All-Star Games

  

Gold Gloves

  

Games

  

-24

-0.6

0

0

0

9

97

9.7

1

0

2

507

110

7.1

2

0

0

419

98

9.6

2

1

0

745

124

22.6

4

2

0

948

95

12.3

0

0

0

1,151

85

1.0

0

0

0

345

The 3-win seasons that had been the norm for most of those guys became remarkably rare for almost all of them. Only Kent (twice) and Kinsler (once) had even one 4-win season beyond age 33. Kinsler settled in as a glove-first veteran, Utley became a role player with the Dodgers, Canó suffered injuries and largely flamed out, and Pedroia never recovered from multiple knee surgeries and was forced into early retirement.

Biggio and Kent, clearly, are the outliers of this group. Biggio never recaptured his peak seasons in his late 30s, but he maintained health and remained a consistent, roughly league-average hitter through age 40. He reached 3,000 career hits and secured his place in the Hall of Fame. Kent basically didn’t even become a great player until his 30s. He won his MVP Award at 32 and remained an offensive force through age 39. He got close to Hall of Fame election but eventually dropped off the ballot in 2023.

Where will Altuve end up when his name appears on the ballot roughly a dozen years from now?

As it is, Altuve already has at least a borderline case for Cooperstown, depending on how voters come to feel about his connection to the 2017 Astros sign-stealing scandal. He ranks 21st all-time among second basemen in fWAR, sandwiched between Hall of Famers Bobby Doerr and Tony Lazzeri, but still behind Kent, Canó, Utley and Willie Randolph. The JAWS system on Baseball Reference — which weighs a player’s peak to measure Hall of Fame worthiness — has Altuve 22nd all-time at the position, slightly behind both Pedroia and Kinsler, and still more than 12 points behind Utley and the average of all 20 Hall of Famers at the position.

If, for whatever reason, the end of Altuve’s career goes the way of Pedroia or Alomar, he’ll be basically stuck in this spot, forever in that murky Cooperstown grey area that’s trapped so many of his peers. If he ages more like Utley or Kinsler — adding roughly 9 or 10 WAR the rest of the way — he’ll end up with a low 60s fWAR similar to Utley, Randolph and Ryne Sandberg. If he has Biggio’s longevity, Altuve could end up basically even with Biggio, except with more playoff accolades that would give Altuve a legitimate claim to being the greatest Astros player of all time. If he ages more like Kent — perhaps not out of the question considering Altuve’s resurgent past three seasons — he could erase any question of his status as the best second baseman of his era. With an especially strong finish to his already decorated career, Altuve could join the discussion of the top 10 second basemen ever to play the game.

(Photo: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)





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