Over the last 12 years, 21 of the 24 MVP awards across the American and National Leagues have gone to players who were either drafted in the first five rounds or offered a seven-figure signing bonus as international free agents. The other three went to Albert Pujols, an overlooked 13th rounder who was embraced as a top prospect almost immediately upon arriving in pro ball. To find an MVP with as surprising a path to stardom as Altuve, you have to go back at least to 2004 AL MVP Vladimir Guerrero, who signed for $2,500 out of the Dominican Republic in 1993.
Altuve is great by any standard, but it’s his height that has inspired internet memes and even a system of measurement, while also making him one of the most anomalous players of the modern era. As an undersized second baseman, Altuve is sometimes compared to the Red Sox star Dustin Pedroia (whom he’s facing in the Division Series) but Pedroia is listed at a comparably towering 5 feet 9 inches. Famously small players like Craig Biggio, Jimmy Rollins, and Joe Morgan are all bigger than Altuve. The only real precedent for a player of similar height being this good comes from the days when nutrition meant a postgame beer. Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto, who retired in 1956, stood at 5 feet 6 inches, but then again, he never had a season as productive offensively as Altuve’s 2017 campaign. The last MVP Altuve’s height or shorter was the pitcher Bobby Shantz in 1952, but he was a one-year wonder more than a reliable superstar. Hack Wilson, a 5-foot-6 slugger who starred in the 1920s, put up some gaudy stats at the plate but wasn’t the all-around player Altuve is.
When I asked the official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn who was the last player 5 feet 6 inches or under as good as Altuve, he bandied about a few names but couldn’t come up with anyone in the last 100 years who could definitively match the Astros second baseman. Altuve might be the best player of shorter stature since the 5-foot-4-inch “Wee Willie” Keeler, a turn-of-the-20th-century outfielder. Keeler was most famous for perfecting the “Baltimore chop,” a ball hit directly downward that bounces so high that the speedy batter can beat it out for a single. He hit only 33 home runs in his entire 19-year career.
So, how is Altuve so good? Well he rarely swings and misses, his elite speed allows him to beat out infield singles and leg out extra-base hits, and he is one of the best bunters in baseball. That he has added power midway through his career is a testament to his rigorous preparation—which friend and mentor Victor Martinez once called “unbelievable”—as well as his conditioning.
There’s an obvious irony to the fact that Altuve’s chief rival for this year’s MVP award is the 6-foot-7-inch, 280-pound Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, one of the largest position players in baseball history. In July, a photo of Altuve and Judge standing side by side went viral due to the sheer absurdity of their mutual existence. How can two men of such drastically different size play—and excel at—the same game? It’s a testament both to baseball’s nature and to Altuve’s exceptional persistence. In some sports, tiny players are curiosities or cute stories. In baseball, a short player can claim three batting titles, whack three home runs in a playoff game, and potentially win his league’s highest honor. Almost no one saw Jose Altuve coming, but as of Thursday afternoon, everyone knows he’s here.