Could Aaron Altherr Be a Part of the Core?

It feels like things with the Phillies should be a little more settled than they are. That could just be my own impatience, but even on the pitching side, we have to see if Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez can stay healthy. And as for the young position players, Odubel Herrera might be the lone sure thing, and he’s bizarre. Maikel Franco still needs to prove that he’s valuable. J.P. Crawford needs to step up his own game. There’s been progress, but the actual core here is still being built.

Thinking about that led me to think about Aaron Altherr. Wednesday’s spring-training highlights also led me to think about Aaron Altherr.

Altherr got an early chance to hit against Gerrit Cole. Now, conditions were clearly windy. This home run didn’t need said wind.

That’s one of those can’t-fake-it home runs — a bomb that proves a hitter’s power by its very being. There are a lot of good major-league players who couldn’t hit that ball to that place. Anyway, skipping ahead, here’s Altherr later on against a could-be specialist:

I wouldn’t say that proves anything. The stakes were low. I’d never heard before of the opposing pitcher. It’s just a pretty swing, against a tough-looking arm slot, and Altherr kept his hands nice and tucked. Good way to book-end a ballgame.

Aaron Altherr has had a good spring. As should always go without saying, it’s a lot easier to have a good spring than to have a good summer. Worse players have posted better numbers, and we can seldom learn that much from these six weeks of semi-baseball. What I like here is that Altherr has put himself back on my own radar. Although he doesn’t have a clear path yet to regular playing time in Philadelphia, he could conceivably force his way. Not that long ago, he already did.

Altherr’s breakout year was 2015. Then, as a 24-year-old, he trimmed his strikeouts in the upper minors, and he graduated all the way to the majors, where he posted a 125 wRC+. That’s an above-average offensive line for a debut player with quick legs and above-average defense. Altherr was going to play, and play often, until in the following spring, he busted his wrist. He missed that starting opportunity, and when he got back, he wasn’t the same.

The Phillies did give him a chance. Altherr played frequently down the stretch, but his wRC+ was half what it had been. The power went away, and this is where you have to think the wrist injury took a devastating toll. Out of 309 players who batted at least 150 times in both 2015 and 2016, Altherr saw the third-largest year-to-year increase in ground-ball rate. The swing consistency wasn’t there. The swing stability wasn’t there. Wrist injuries aren’t always a valid excuse, but you can see how they could be in particular cases.

The Phillies acquired Howie Kendrick to play an outfield corner. The Phillies acquired Michael Saunders to play the other outfield corner. The lesson they learned was that Altherr couldn’t be depended upon. And yet, now, you have that strong spring. Altherr has gotten back to hitting about three-fifths of his batted balls somewhere in the air. I’ll note this excerpt, from the top of Altherr’s FanGraphs page:

RotoWire News: Altherr has worked with hitting coach Matt Stairs to make an adjustment to his mechanics at the plate this spring, Ryan Lawrence of the Philly Voice reports. (3/18/2017)

It’s almost two weeks old, but that doesn’t matter, and I’ll embed here a clip of how Altherr looked last year, when I could find a pretty straight-on camera angle.

If you compare that to the earlier clips, it’s evident that Altherr has changed his stance. More importantly, Altherr has also worked to lower his hands, which seems like an increasingly popular tweak. The idea is to shorten the distance the hands and bat have to travel, and Matt Stairs has also talked a few times before about how he believes in the value of batted balls in the air. They want to get Altherr hitting like he was. This spring, he has hit like he did.

I’d like to go over the general profile here. I find the 2016 explanation persuasive — I don’t think Altherr found his swing, after coming back from a broken wrist. He wouldn’t be the first player to experience such a slump. As demonstrated on Wednesday, Altherr has real raw power. As a rookie in 2015, his average exit velocity ranked in the 83rd percentile, by names like Jose Bautista and Kris Bryant. Altherr has shown a good idea of the strike zone, with better-than-average rates of swings at would-be balls. Although his contact rates have been below-average, they haven’t been bad. They’ve been in a normal area for a slugger.

And it gets better still. Altherr runs well. He isn’t a player who has to be carried by his bat. Defensive Runs Saved puts him at +9, in the equivalent of two-thirds of a season. UZR puts him at +10. He’s played all three outfield positions, and his throwing arm has rated as a plus. And turning to my plus/minus estimates based on the Statcast catch probabilities, Altherr again shows up as above-average, about as good as Brett Gardner and Christian Yelich. That helps to support the DRS and UZR marks, which one would typically take with a grain of salt in a smaller sample.

Altherr is 26, and in one sense, an injury cost him his best shot. So be it; sometimes you get unlucky. But as I think about what Altherr can do, and as I think about where the Phillies are, I wonder if he’s actually one of their best players. When you have a player like this with all-around skills, the offensive bar isn’t so high, and Altherr has the ability anyway to surpass it. He isn’t a hacker, and he’s sufficiently strong. He’s demonstrating as well as he can that last year shouldn’t be held too firmly against him.

Aaron Altherr might yet establish himself as a part of the Phillies’ longer-term core. Given the veterans in front of him, this might be a year too late, but the Phillies presumably haven’t lost sight of their priorities. They know the guys they’re going to start. They know the guys they’d like to start. Altherr could be on his way to another impressive and career-launching second half.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

This is a great article. It feels like we know so little about Altherr even though we’ve been talking about him for years. I think it’s clear that he made clearly defined changes in 2014-15 that led to him crushing in the minors, and I think it’s clear that he plays above-average corner defense. I have absolutely no idea if he will hit .230 or .270 or in between, or how much game power he can get to. Like, he feels like he could be a 3-win “good at everything” type guy or a 0.5-win “not quite good enough at anything” type guy.

I get the feeling that the Phils have given up a little on him, but there’s one way to change your organization’s mind on that front: start raking. If Altherr can continue his growth that was interrupted by the wrist injury, then he can certainly be a contributor on the ’18 or ’19 wild card hopefuls. That’s a big if, though, given his history and profile.

5 years ago
Reply to  jruby

Unrelated to the above, and not to detract from what was obviously great power in that first clip, but… wow I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more centrally located fastball than that one Cole threw. That is like… the definition of middle.

5 years ago
Reply to  jruby

This one. Worse being that it was called a ball.