Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
If you've ever been to an amusement park, you're probably familiar with this sign: YOU MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE THE ROLLER COASTER. The sign is usually accompanied by a cardboard cutout of someone roughly the same size as Jose Altuve.
But don't worry, Jose. In baseball, there's no height restriction for leading the league in hitting. And true to form, that's exactly what the Houston Astros second baseman is doing right now.
With an average of .347 through his first 80 games, the 5-foot-5 Altuve is going where very few Astros have gone before. The last 'Stro to hit better than .340 in a season was Moises Alou in 2000 (.355 in 126 games).
For the last time a Houston player led the league in hitting, you'd have to go all the way back to ... well never actually. In 53 years of existence, including three seasons in the early 1960s when the Astros were known as the Colt .45s, no Astro has ever captured the batting title.
The pint-sized Altuve could be the first.
The beauty of owning the league's most diminutive player is that unlike Six Flags or Busch Gardens, there is no roller coaster to ride. It's been smooth sailing all year with Altuve. The 24-year-old's worst month came in April when he hit ONLY .276. You know, three points higher than Evan Longoria's career average.
Much has been made about the Astros' youth movement (the new Sports Illustrated devoted eight pages to this subject), yet the team's best player has been here since 2011. And the scary part is, he's just getting warmed up.
Let's be reasonable though. Altuve isn't producing many YouTube moments. Of the 16 home runs he's hit since joining the Astros in 2011, only two have traveled 400 feet. Power's just not a part of his package.
But who needs power when you have practically everything else? Altuve's .424 average in June is the highest in baseball for any month this season (minimum 50 at-bats). Plus, he's hitting .438 against lefties. That's the highest clip we've seen since Ryan Braun hit .450 against southpaws in 2007 (again, minimum 50 at-bats).
And goodness gracious, have you seen the man run? When it comes to stealing bases, Altuve is taking no prisoners. In fact, Altuve has recorded two hits and swiped at least two bases in each of his last four games. That hasn't been done since 1917. Back then, the Curse of the Bambino wasn't even a curse yet.
It's like Altuve is Robin Hood, but instead of giving to the poor, he's feeding the bellies of all the fantasy owners brave enough to pick him. He already has a career-high 36 stolen bases and it isn't even July.
When you stack Altuve up with some of the league's other top base stealers, you'll find that he's one of the most efficient runners in baseball. His 92.3 percent success rate on steals (36 out of 39, if you're keeping track) is higher than Billy Hamilton (75.6), Jacoby Ellsbury (87.5) and the league's current master thief, Dee Gordon (83.3).
Fantasy owners aren't the only ones benefiting from Altuve's improbable start. The Astros are, too. They're six games better than they were at this juncture last season and though that doesn't seem like much, the difference in winning percentage is a whopping 73 points. Heck, Houston for all its problems, still has a 1.4 percent chance of making the postseason. That's not great, but 1.4 certainly isn't zero. Dream on, Astros fans.
But where did this come from? Call it the George Springer effect. Since George's call-up on April 16th, Altuve, who hits directly in front of Springer in the Houston lineup, has batted .362 with just 18 strikeouts in 282 at-bats. Before that, he was hitting only .269 in 52 trips to the plate.
Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, Felix Hernandez, Troy Tulowitzki -- these are just a few of the players Altuve is currently ahead of on ESPN's player rater. That speck you see in the distance is Altuve smoking a victory cigar on top of baseball's Mount Everest.
Welcome to the top, Jose. And to the rest of the American League, you might want to watch out for the little guy.