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The not-so-tall tales of Jose Altuve

Editor's note: Originally published on Oct. 24, 2017.

Nobody ever pegged Jose Altuve as a future major leaguer just by looking at him.

For the record, Altuve is listed at 5-foot-6, a designation that even he admits is about one inch too generous. Scouts who are trained to never judge a player specifically by stature and size found it difficult to get beyond their initial impression when he took the field.

And then they saw him play.

Wow.

Blink and you will miss Altuve's hands and wrists zooming through the hitting zone. He batted .343 that summer in Venezuela and never stopped hitting. His average had risen to .389 between two minor league levels in 2011 when the Houston Astros decided to call him up directly from Double-A.

Altuve batted .276 in his first 57 big league games, .290 in his first full season in 2012. He won his first batting title by hitting .341 in 2014, then grabbed repeat crowns with a .338 average in 2016 and .346 this year.

Then there's the power. Altuve was always able to drive the ball into the gaps for doubles. But he hit 15 homers in the minors in 2011, a precursor to what he has done over the past three seasons in the big leagues. He hit 15 homers in 2015 and 24 in each of the past two seasons.

Too short? Hardly.

"It's fun to watch him on TV now," said Al Pedrique, the former big league infielder who was a special assistant to then-Astros general manager Tim Purpura in 2006, when the team signed Altuve out of Venezuela for $15,000. "I always tell my wife, 'Who was going to believe then, when we had Altuve at 15, that he was going to be a superstar?' It's amazing what this kid has accomplished all because of hard work and dedication."

Indeed, as Altuve begins the final act of his MVP-worthy season by leading the Astros into the World Series on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, everyone seems to have a short story that reads more like a tall tale of the first time the All-Star second baseman wowed them. It goes all the way back to an Astros tryout camp 11 years ago.
AL PEDRIQUE:"In all the years I've been involved with the game, Altuve was a special situation. At that time, I was doing international scouting and working with infielders. One of my trips down to Venezuela, the scout [the Astros' Pablo Torrealba] -- I knew him for a long time -- he told me he had a kid that, he was small but don't go by his size. Just let him play, watch him swing the bat. I told him I would be in Venezuela the next day.

"My flight got canceled, so I had to stay another night in the Dominican [Republic]. They told 25 players that they put together for the tryout, Altuve was one of them, to go home. He kept saying, 'Are you sure? I just want to get a chance.' He came back the next day, and to make a long story short, I got to Venezuela, saw Altuve, and it got my attention the way he swung the bat, how he handled himself on the field, the energy. Altuve was different compared to everybody else. The way he walked on the field, handled himself, how quick his hands were. He ran the 60 yards and was the fastest guy in the group.

"The Astros back then, they looked for big players, physically strong and tall. Altuve definitely wasn't that guy. But I learned from Andres Reiner -- he was the guy that opened up the academy [in Venezuela] for the Astros. He always told me, 'When you start evaluating players, have an open mind. Don't turn anybody down. Give them a chance to get on the field. You never know.' That's the way I handled the situation with Altuve. I told him, 'Listen, you're a little guy. Make sure you hit line drives, hard ground balls.' And by the fifth, sixth day [of the tryout camp], I told the staff, 'For being a 15-,16-year-old kid, this kid has a good feel of what was going on at the plate.' He looked like he was a 22-, 23-year-old kid."

OMAR LOPEZ(Astros Venezuelan Summer League manager in 2007): "We had a lot of players with one year of service, two years of service that had to play ahead of Altuve. Our first week, the record was .500, a little bit under .500 the second week. Altuve was playing every two days, every three days. We called him 'enano' in Spanish -- 'the midget.' We had a scout named Johan Maya. Every day, he said, 'Omar, you've got to put the midget [in the lineup].' I said, 'Maya, I can't do it. Not every day.' So, one day, I made a decision. I said, 'OK, he's going to play two days in a row.' And then the rest was history because Altuve took a place, got in the lineup, got in the field, and I think he played for five days in a row and got one day off a week. That's it.

"I remember a team that we were playing -- I think it was against the Mets -- the first pitch was a breaking ball to Altuve. Altuve took it. The second pitch, another breaking ball. It was low. And the manager got up and he said, 'Come on, man. Stop throwing breaking balls to this little guy. Throw him a fastball. See if he can hit it.' And man, the next pitch was a fastball, and Altuve hit a bullet off the right leg or calf of the pitcher. They pulled him out of the game. Next at-bat, the opposing manager said, 'Why are the outfielders playing so deep? Play shallow. This guy doesn't have enough power.' Boom, next pitch, double to the right-center-field gap. Probably the second part of the season, everybody started to talk about Jose Altuve, and everybody started to say, 'This midget, he can hit.' Everybody started to respect him."

JEFF LUHNOW(Astros general manager, 2011-present): "The first time I saw him and the first time he wowed me, it was both the same time. It was in the [rookie-level] Appalachian League [in 2009]. He was a second baseman who could really hit the ball. I had no idea that he was going to end up being here at this point. But he's done everything that he needs to do. The guy's amazing."

DALLAS KEUCHEL(Astros pitcher, 2012-present): "When I first signed, I got a glimpse of him in short-season A-ball for a month [in Troy, New York]. Honestly, I don't think he'd hit puberty yet. On the bus, it sounded like a girl was on our team. I didn't know who he was, but he was in the back and he'd talk constantly in Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying. But every time we'd go to the park, there was this smile that was on his face. When you've got a guy like that who's willing to work every minute of the day, it makes my job easier knowing that people around me want to play this game, as well as just as much as I do.

"I don't think he really knows what he's doing up there half the time. He's got such great hand-eye coordination. He's got one of the quickest set of hands in baseball. Whether you have long arms, short arms, as long as those hands are quick to the ball -- whether it's inside or outside, up or down -- you've got a good chance to putting good contact on the ball. And the hard-hit rate, with the miles per hour off the bat, it's such a crazy stat, and he's up there with some of the big dogs, including [6-foot-7 Yankees slugger Aaron] Judge. But he's just an incredible talent."

CRAIG BIGGIO(Hall of Famer and former Astros second baseman): "First time I saw him, it was on Field 3 in Kissimmee, Florida. It was a back field, and it was like him and eight other guys. We were talking baserunning. And then getting an opportunity to watch him play in spring training games, I mean, he may be 5-foot-6, but he played like he's 6-foot-6. And he doesn't care [about his height]. He's an incredible player, and he's evolved and gotten better every single year. He understands who he is. He's not Aaron Judge. He's not going to hit a ball off the Oxy sign out there [in left-center field at Minute Maid Park]. He stays within his capabilities, and that's the hardest thing to do for any big leaguer -- understanding what you can do and can't do.

"He can kind of hit the ball where he wants to do it. Tony Gwynn was another guy that was very similar in that way. He'd put the bat on the ball and hit the ball where he wanted to consistently. When you've had as much success as Jose's had over the last four or five years, he's pretty darned good at it. The first time I met him, I loved everything about him."

A.J. HINCH(Astros manager, 2015-present): "The first time I met him, he talked about wanting to be better. He was already coming off a batting title, he was coming off a hit-total title [in 2014], and yet his first thing to me was, 'How can I get better?'

"I don't know if anything's surprised me as much as I've just been able to have a front-row seat to his growth and his evolution from a really good player on some rough teams to an exceptional player on a great team. To watch him grow and mature -- I've seen him become a father for the first time, I've seen him speak out in meetings for the first time and be a leader vocally. Probably most important, I've just seen him be the most consistent player in baseball at his craft, at being a good hitter, good defender, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, All-Star, hits leader, batting titles. You name it, he's done it. For me, to be able the last three years to watch him grow, develop a relationship with him, see how he's impacted his teammates, hopefully he can add an MVP to that trophy case here this season."

JAKE MARISNICK(Astros outfielder, 2014-present): "I mean, it's hard to pinpoint just one thing. You can go back as recently as the three homers, two of 'em off [Chris] Sale [in Game 1 of the division series against the Boston Red Sox]. For a guy his size to come out and do that, it's incredible. With the way he handles the bat and the power he's developed, a lot of this goes to hard work. The guy's in the cage every day. He loves baseball. He loves studying hitting. It's infectious.

"You've got pitchers that can pinpoint where they want to throw it. He can pinpoint where he wants to hit it. It's incredible to hear him before an at-bat say, 'Hey, watch this, I'm going to flip it right over here,' and he does it. Most guys, it's luck. With him, you see it time and time again and you say, 'All right, this guy is pretty good.' Then he goes into his power and starts driving balls the other way and hitting balls over the fence. He can do it all. It's incredible."

CARLOS CORREA(Astros shortstop, 2015-present): Inside the field, obviously you can see everything that happens there -- turning double plays, having good times and everything. We're like brothers out there. But off the field, as well, the relationship is great. We watch boxing fights together on Saturdays, UFC fights. We go grab dinners every once in a while, especially when we're on the road. We fight a lot, and five minutes later I'm like, 'That's why I love you, because we fight and then five minutes later we talk like nothing happened.' The relationship keeps growing. Hopefully, [Astros owner] Jim [Crane] can sign him for 10 more years to this team so I can play with him for a long time."

CARLOS BELTRAN (Astros designated hitter, 2017): "Honestly, I've never seen anything like him. He does a lot of things in the batting cage that sometimes you would not want a lot of guys to do. Normally, you would tell a guy like him, 'Man, go with the pitch, make sure you stride toward the pitcher.' He's a unique hitter. He does spend a lot of time in the video room watching pitchers, working on his swing. He takes a lot of pride into hitting, even though he's real humble about it, which is great for me to see that in a guy that has won three batting championships. It's amazing."

JUSTIN VERLANDER(Astros pitcher since being acquired in an Aug. 31 trade): "The one thing I noticed that I didn't notice with him [before] was actually how good he is, if that makes sense. Having the opportunity to play with a [future] Hall of Famer like Miguel Cabrera for a long time [in Detroit], the players that came over, it never failed, they would come over and after a couple -- two, three -- weeks, they would say, 'Man, I knew he was really good, but god, I didn't know he was that good.' And that's the same thing that I've experienced with Altuve. He has exceeded my expectations of how good of a ballplayer he is. And that says a lot. When your peers know that you're great and then you exceed that expectation, I think that's the greatest compliment you can give.

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