The Houston Astros weren’t supposed to advance to the 2020 ALCS, not after the turmoil they faced before the season got underway.
Amidst the allegations and subsequent investigations surrounding the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, no player faced more scrutiny than Houston’s second baseman Jose Altuve and his 2017 AL MVP trophy.
After winning his ring in October of 2017, Altuve’s name was called again when he beat out Aaron Judge and Jose Ramirez for the American League’s top award. It wasn’t a surprise. Hell, this website, in its infancy, vehemently argued that it was Altuve’s award to lose.
There’s an interesting reaction that happens when sports fans feel wronged by a player. Perhaps this player has left town for a bigger contract, or insulted a city as they made their exit. But in the world of baseball, there is no fury like a fan who feels cheated by deception.
Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, and to some extent Robinson Cano, who was just recently suspended an entire year for using PEDs, have all faced that fury. It is lifelong, it is alienating, and it is a lonely existence. When you’ve taken something unfairly from a fanbase, that’s a wound that will never heal.
Of that infamous group, only two of them (Clemens and A-Rod) truly hurt the entire league with their actions, using their heightened abilities to win a World Series. Until the Astros’ scandal, that is.
By 2020, Altuve’s MVP award had lost its shine under the microscope of the modern-day internet and the league’s inability to hold players accountable. Jose Altuve was a part of a team that stole signs for multiple years, made two trips to the World Series during that time, winning a ring along the way. That’s not something that’s going to sit well with the general baseball public.
It’s possible that there was no good way to handle the fallout of such a massive bombshell. It’s a tough line to walk. Should Altuve plant his feet and defend his honor? Or should he admit wrongdoing, accept the shame, and work towards forgiveness?
José Altuve did neither. There was a general apology for wrongdoing, but that apology only seemed to come as a spokesperson for the team. The apology didn’t feel sincere, and left fans angrier than before he opened his mouth. There was never an apology or sense of contrition for winning the AL MVP under such dark and murky circumstances.
“José Altuve was the one guy that didn’t use the trash can. The few times that the trash can was banged was without his consent, and he would go inside the clubhouse and inside the dugout to whoever was banging the trash can and he would get (upset). He would get mad. He would say, ’I don’t want this. I can’t hit like this. Don’t you do that to me.’ He played the game clean.”
“The reason José Altuve apologized to the media was for being part of the team and for not stopping it, but he’s not apologizing for using the trash can. He’s not apologizing for cheating because he did not cheat … José Altuve earned that MVP, and he’s been showing that for years.”
And so, Altuve went into the 2020 season with a dark cloud hanging over his head, and really only two possible outcomes. Either A) Altuve shuts down the haters and naysayers with a season that proves his 2017 and subsequent seasons were on talent and ability, or B) He absolutely craters and only digs himself deeper into the hole of doubt surrounding him.
Altuve’s 2020 season wasn’t great. His .219/.286/.344 slash and his .629 OPS were significantly lower than his previous seasons. In just 48 games, the former MVP struck out 39 times, almost half of his full season average of 83. Across the board, his numbers failed to live up to his standard of play, and non-Astros fans everywhere rejoiced.
Now, it is completely fair to yell “Small Sample Size” at these numbers. But the optics are not good.
Altuve saw his average drop almost 70 points and his OPS drop by .274. For a player who averages an OPS+ of 1.24, a shortened season at .74 has to raise some eyebrows.
In the 2020 Wild Card round, as the Astros traveled to Minnesota to face the Twins, Altuve’s struggles continued, going 0-for-7 over the two-game sweep.
As the Astros headed to the ALDS against division rival Oakland, it seemed unlikely that the Josè Altuve of years past would show up. The man who had sent the Astros to the 2019 World Series with one swing off Aroldis Chapman wasn’t anywhere to be found.
And that’s when José Altuve woke up. Over the four games against the Athletics, Altuve had six hits, brought in five runs, and slammed two home runs as the Astros pushed their way to the ALCS. Altuve the MVP appeared to return just in the nick of time.
And then the ALCS happened.
From the jump, Altuve was the driving force of the Astros’ offense, opening the scoring in the series with a first-inning moonshot off of Blake Snell.
With two of Houston’s nine hits already in his pocket, Altuve stepped into the box with a runner on second, two outs in the top of the ninth, and his team down 2-1. We’ve come to know Altuve in these moments, with the team on his back, ready to send one deep or set up his team with a double.
But Altuve would strike out swinging, leaving Myles Straw stranded at second, and giving the Rays a 1-0 series lead. The man who gave them a one-run lead in the first couldn’t drive in the equalizer.
Game 2 was a little different for Altuve. His shortcomings wouldn’t come at the dish, but in the field. In the first inning, after Lance McCullers got the first two outs, Altuve failed to complete a routine, inning-ending throw to first base.
The uncharacteristic E4 put two men on for Rays outfielder Manuel Margot, who proceeded to knock a three-run homer that gave the Rays the lead they needed to earn the win.
Errors from Altuve weren’t really up in 2020, pushing back on the idea that his entire game was dwindling. In 2019, Altuve made a fielding error every 14 games. In 2020, that number rose slightly to an error every 12 games. Nothing too outside of the norm, especially in a shortened season. However, to watch Altuve make such a simple mistake on such a big stage was shocking. He’s not one to shy away from a big moment, and yet he was shrinking in front of our eyes in important moments.
Unfortunately for Altuve, it would not be the last one we’d see.
In Game 3, as the Astros fought to stop the Rays from taking a commanding 3-0 series lead, Altuve put the Astros on the board first with another first-inning home run, this time off of Ryan Yarbrough. Houston took that 1-0 lead into the top of the 6th inning, where Randy Arozarena singled off Jose Urquidy, putting the tying run on base for the Rays.
On a 1-1 pitch, Brandon Lowe hit a groundball to Altuve, who turned to second base in an attempt to turn a double play. The ball came out of Altuve’s hand and hit the ground in front of shortstop Carlos Correa, who couldn’t handle the throw.
It was another E4. Everyone was safe.
The Tampa Bay Rays would go on to score five runs that inning, a lead the Astros wouldn’t be able to overcome, despite their best efforts. But there was a potential glimmer of light in the ninth inning.
With one out and two runners on, Altuve stepped into the box representing the tying run. The second time he had the chance to get the Astros back into this series would end the same as the first. Altuve’s strikeout sucked the air out of PetCo Park, as the Tampa Bay Rays took a commanding 3-0 series lead that put them one win away from the World Series.
Were these losses Altuve’s fault? Does he own any blame?
In the first three games of the ALCS, Altuve led the Astros with a .385 average over 13 at-bats. He also led the Astros in hits, home runs, RBIs, On-Base Percentage, Slugging, and OPS. Altuve is responsible for two of the Astros five runs in the first three games. The guy was keeping the Astros offense afloat, and yet, is still the main reason they were behind in this series.
Both of Altuve’s errors had a direct impact on each game’s loss. And while it takes a team to lose a game, these two moments are crystal clear in their impact.
And that’s the most heartbreaking part of the ALCS, and possibly the season for Altuve. Surrounded by an entire roster and coaching staff fighting to silence the haters, Altuve’s fight is solitary. It’s his battle and his alone.
José Altuve could’ve done everything right and he’d still be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Technically he’s still responsible for his predicament, no matter how unfortunate. If he had apologized and admitted even a modicum of fault or remorse for 2017, Altuve would be in the same boat as Ryan Braun, who has taken his lumps for years over his tainted MVP win. If he didn’t and had a brilliant season, only more hate would have poured in.
Instead, José Altuve is in a hell of his own design, one where he’s the hero and the villain at the same time. And much like the one character in Hamilton who is fighting off the role of the villain, Altuve is learning that baseball “doesn’t discriminate, between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes. History obliterates, in every picture it paints,” it paints Altuve and all his mistakes.
How will history view José Altuve? It’s too early to tell. But if the present is any indicator, it will not be kind to the 2017 AL MVP.
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