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6/14/2014 5:53 P.M. ET

Altuve riding breakthrough first half into All-Star Game

Astros second baseman puts in work to emerge as one of game's best playmakers

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Astros second baseman Jose Altuve saw his name penciled in as his team's cleanup hitter a few weeks ago, he quickly snapped a photo of the lineup card and fired it off to his buddy, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

"This is what a four hitter looks like," he wrote.

Or a batting champion.

Or a stolen base champion.

Actually, it's what an impact baseball player looks like, a guy who makes the players in front of him better as well as the players behind him.

It's the look of a guy who examines himself and his game and dedicates himself to getting better. That's getting better physically by giving up burgers and fries, dropping 10 pounds and sticking with a new training regimen.

That's getting better mentally, too, by working relentlessly on his swing mechanics and studying enough video to walk to home plate with an idea of how he intends to approach the at-bat.

Altuve didn't really reinvent himself in his third full big league season. He was already a very solid player. He was a member of the 2012 National League All-Star Team and began the season with a .285 career batting average.

He could have a nice long career producing the same exact numbers he has produced. Maybe this season is a tribute to that intangible thing that separates the players who absolutely burn to achieve greatness from all the others.

"Jose just decided there was more there," Astros manager Bo Porter said.

That there is. There are more infield hits, thanks to the increased speed. There are more stolen bases, too. Really, more of everything. His 130 hits are 12 more than any other player in the big leagues. He leads the American League in stolen bases and is second in batting average (.335) and doubles.

His .335 batting average is a 52-point improvement on 2013. Now about those stolen bases. He steals them efficiently, swiping 41 in 44 attempts. Before this season, he'd never stolen more than 35 bases in an entire season.

He's consistent, too, hitting .337 at home, .333 on the road. He's hitting .412 against left-handed pitching, .308 against right-handers.

He has hit cleanup, too, starting 10 games in all. He has better numbers in the first three spots in the order, but the bottom line is that at 24 years old, he's one of the best players in baseball.

So this second appearance in the All-Star Game is a validation of hours of hard work on and off the field.

"I remember my first All-Star Game when I went in there and looked around and couldn't believe I was there with all those guys," he said Monday afternoon. "I think it helped that people doubted me. I thought I could get to the big leagues and be a good player."

When he first began showing up for tryout camps in his native Venezuela, scouts told him he had some skills but they weren't going to sign someone 5-foot-6.

Only the Astros took a chance. Almost from the moment he arrived in 2007, he looked completely comfortable. He flew through the farm system, skipping Triple-A altogether and debuting at 21 in 2011.

OK, back to this breakout season. He's the first player in history to reach 130 hits and 40 steals before the All-Star break. One reason is his physical conditioning.

"I feel 100 percent right now," he said. "Last year, I had a couple of things in my legs that slowed me down. I feel really good right now. I feel a little faster. I've been getting a lot of hits with ground balls to shortstop, and I think that's been the difference."

He leads the AL in infield hits with 22. That's two fewer than he had all last season.

He also has a better idea what he's doing at home plate thanks to the regimen Astros hitting coach John Mallee has gotten him to buy into. He studies each pitcher and walks to home plate with a better idea of what the pitcher is going to throw.

He also believes that having rookie George Springer hitting behind him helps with piling up stolen bases.

"You can't throw him a fastball right in the middle," Altuve said. "He'll make you pay. You have to throw him more breaking pitches and pitch around him. I think it's been easier for me."

This All-Star Game is a nice tribute to the quality of Venezuelan baseball. AL starter Felix Hernandez is the first Venezuelan to start an All-Star Game, and there's also Cabrera and Altuve's Little League buddy, Royals catcher Salvador Perez.

He and Cabrera have become fast friends through the years, talking mostly basketball and, well, kidding one another.

"He's a great guy," Cabrera said. "He's also a great player. He's just having an unbelievable year."

Altuve said the second time in an All-Star Game is a more comfortable experience. His first one went by in a blur.

Asked what he remembered, he said, "My ground ball to second base that I was safe at first, that they called me out. Jim Joyce called me out. That's my memory."

Whatever memory he carries from this one might very well include Derek Jeter, who is participating in his 14th and final Midsummer Classic.

"He's 'The Captain,'" Altuve said, "Not only for the Yankees, [but] for every single team in the big leagues. I've been waiting for this moment, and I feel really happy to be in his last All-Star Game. He's an example of what a big league player should look like."

ln plenty of ways, Altuve is as well, and this game is a payoff for all the hours he worked and the hurdles he cleared.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.