Legends' Altuve a little big man

5-foot-5 altuve feels tall on the field

mmaloney@herald-leader.comJuly 4, 2010 

The second thing observers usually note about Jose Altuve is his power.

He ranks third on the Lexington Legends in homers (8) and slugging (.439), and he's tied for third in the South Atlantic League with 52 runs scored through Thursday.

All of which is a bit amazing upon realizing what people first notice about Altuve.

The right-handed-hitting second baseman is the smallest Legend: 5-foot-5.

"One thing going for him is that people see him, and he looks short," said Rodney Linares, Altuve's manager here and also for two seasons with the Greeneville Astros. "He can swing the bat. His biggest thing is that he drives the ball to right-center. He can drive the ball out of the park ... and he's a good hitter."

A South Atlantic League All-Star, Altuve was second on the team in batting (.293) and hits (86) coming into Saturday's game at Hickory. He leads the Legends in steals (25) and shares the lead in triples (3).

"He makes up for his stature by the way he plays the game," said Ricky Bennett, assistant general manager and director of player development for the Legends' parent club, the Houston Astros. "He's a little energizer. He plays hard, runs the bases hard, hits in the leadoff spot, and he just goes about his business every day, willing to work hard to be a better player."

Altuve, 20, grew up in Maracay, the same Venezuelan city that produced the player he admires most — Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus.

Altuve's father, Carlos, is a businessman in Maracay. His mother, Lasta, is a housewife. Jose also has a brother, who doesn't play baseball, Carlos, 18.

Jose gets encouragement from his family by phone three or four times a week.

He began playing ball at 9. He dreamed of playing in the major leagues.

"I always was the littlest person on my team," he said, "but I feel like the same height as everybody when I'm playing."

The Astros signed him at 16, on Sept. 27, 2006.

He spent 2007 in the Venezuelan Summer League, batting .343 over 64 games.

Altuve moved to Greene ville in 2008, hitting .284 with his first two homers as a pro, over 40 games.

Last year, he split the season between Greeneville and the Tri-City ValleyCats, hitting a combined .302 with three homers, 25 RBI and 28 stolen bases over 66 games.

"For a little guy like him, he packs a punch, and the ball jumps off his bat," Randy Ingle, manager of the Rome Braves, said during a series at Lexington last weekend. "Plus, he has the speed. A good-looking ball player."

What folks won't find in Altuve is a language barrier.

He is dedicated to studying English as a second language.

"He understands that he's not going to have me as a manager all the time," said Linares, American by birth and Domincan by heritage. "He understands that he's not going to have coaches that speak Spanish. ... He rooms a lot with the American players, and he's one of the guys."

An avid movie watcher, Altuve now shuns subtitles to build his language skills.

Before home games, Altuve stands by shortstop Jiovanni Mier during pre-game ceremonies.

"He even sang the national anthem the other day," Mier said. "It was pretty funny. ... I said 'let's sing the whole words.' He said, 'OK.' He didn't look at the words once, and he sang it."

Mier also knows the key to Altuve's power stroke.

"His bat speed. His hands are so fast, and that's basically where he gets it from," Mier said. "He sees it and just lets his hands go, and the ball does the rest."

Linares and Bennett agree that home runs sometime lure Altuve into a "long" swing. Altuve acknowledges the temptation and agrees that that's "not his game." He also wants to be more patient and selective at the plate. Defense has never been in doubt.

Bennett is looking for what most minor-leaguers lack most: consistency.

"I want him to cut down on his strikeouts because, like I said, sometimes his swing gets a little too big at times," Bennett said. "But if he can shorten his swing, put the ball in play, continue to bunt a couple times a week to use his speed that way offensively. ... And just become more consistent defensively — making the routine play, turning the double play at second base. The smaller things we're looking for out of him the second half."

For Altuve, the task shouldn't be too tall to handle.

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