There is a point in evaluation where you just need to throw away a previous set of opinions and start fresh. This was the case with Aaron Altherr at the plate this year. It wasn’t that his swing was overhauled dramatically, it was that Altherr had taken his swing and other parts of his game to their end conclusion almost instantly. Altherr has always been one of the best athletes on any baseball field he is on, but he never looked quite like he entirely knew what he was doing. Everything in Altherr’s game looks smooth and is an integrated part of his athleticism now, and now we can finally evaluate the full player.
What Was Written Before the Season:
25. Aaron Altherr – CF
Role: Second Division Regular
Risk: Medium – Altherr is a major leaguer based on his skillset, but to be a regular of some sort he will need to make improvements to his approach and close some holes in his swing.
Summary: There is little doubt that Altherr has a major league role – the question has been how big that role is. Altherr has proven over the past few years that he can handle center field, and the lanky center fielder seemingly glides with plus speed around the outfield. The problems for him is his bat. Some of his poor 2014 can be explained by a wrist injury he suffered in the fall of 2013 that needed offseason surgery, but the injury does not explain all of the negatives. The swing itself is fine, but his long arms add length to the swing path, which consequently opens up holes in his swing. This, coupled with a questionable approach and not great pitch recognition, leads to a lot of questions about how much contact Altherr will make. The questionable hit tool hurts one of his biggest strengths – his plus raw power. If Altherr can make enough contact to have the power show up in games, then he could be a major league regular in center field as long as his range holds up. More likely though he can be somewhere between a platoon and solid 4th outfielder. This past year saw a big drop in Altherr’s stock, and it has been an up and down minor league career for Altherr. A good year in 2015 will put him close to a longer stint in the majors. Given the recent minor league free agent signings by the Phillies, Altherr probably will at least start back in Reading, likely moving to right field because of Roman Quinn. A good start in AA could get him to Lehigh Valley quickly, and given the Phillies major league outfield situation, he could see major league time.
What Happened in the Minors:
Stat Line (AA): 260 PAs 19 2B 3 3B 6 HR 28 BB (10.8%) 40 K (15.4 %) .293/.371/.480
Stat Line (AAA): 229 PAs 13 2B 2 3B 8 HR 21 BB (9.2%) 44 K (19.2%) .294/.362/.495
Altherr got a bit of a slow start as he missed the end of spring training, but then mashed from the point he put on a Reading uniform. He played mostly right field with Roman Quinn manning center field and was good as always out there. His underlying numbers were almost the same at home and on the road for Reading. After hitting for the first two and a half months he got the bump to Lehigh Valley in June. He struck out a bit more in AAA while walking a bit less, but overall just continued over his success in all aspects of the game. He primarily played center field for the IronPigs and showed above average defense there in addition to games in both corner outfield positions. You can read more in-depth thoughts on Altherr’s time in the minors here where I broke down the changes in his numbers and approach.
What Happened in the Majors:
Stat Line: 161 PAs 11 2B 4 3B 5 HR 16 BB (9.9%) 41 K (25.5%) .241/.338/.489
Major League Debut: June 16, 2014
If you believe in WAR than Aaron Altherr was the second most valuable hitter on the 2015 Phillies, putting up 1.7 fWAR in 39 games. It is a number that will give you highly unrealistic dreams if you extrapolate it over a full season. A lot of this is some unrealistic defensive numbers fueled by Altherr catching pretty much every ball hit his way in his short time in the majors. He has shown to be a very good defender in all three outfield positions, but it is unrealistic for it to continue at its current pace as he faces a wider distribution of balls in play. There is some concern at the plate (advanced composite metrics are much kinder than the triple slash line with a 123 OPS+ and 124 wRC+), based on the strikeout rate. Altherr seemed especially susceptible to breaking balls down both early and late in counts, and both those things play together, because he is good at working deep counts and getting to his pitch, but putting himself in a deficit early can lead to problems late. I thought he might have a problem with pitchers getting in on his long arms, and some have tried (to bad results for the pitcher) but no one has been truly successful at getting him inside with velocity, but it is something to watch. Overall outside some early ill-advised swings Altherr has worked pitchers and counts well in the majors.
As for the Altherr’s swing itself, not much has changed in the majors from the minors. It is fairly simple, it looks natural, there is some length, his bat speed is good but not premium. He doesn’t hit towering fly balls and his home runs have a tendency to be screaming line drives (or soft ones that aren’t caught), this gives him a higher BABIP ceiling (though he was more in the “normal” .300 level in the majors). Altherr does show pull tendencies, but they tend to be more on his outfield balls and he has shown the ability to go the other way in the past, most of his home run power comes from inside pitches though. Altherr was supposed to have heavy platoon splits in the majors, but in his small sample size he hit the ball hard off of righties (including a home run off of Jake Arrieta), but showed much better plate discipline vs lefties (he had a much lower BABIP vs LHPs), however like all of Altherr’s season it was extremely small sample size.
As was said at the top, it is time to reassess Altherr with his new swing in tow as a complete player. Let’s view this as an exercise in WAR too to get a feel for how the sum of the parts can be a pretty decent player. Fangraphs says Altherr was worth about 6 defensive runs post positional adjustment, which would put him among the best defensive outfielder in the majors over 162 games, but it is likely no unreasonable to say his glove is probably worth more in the 8-10 run a year. On the base paths he is probably 3-4 run player based on his speed and instincts. Put those together plus adjustments from average to replacement and you have a player somewhere in the 27ish runs per 600 PA range before swinging a bat. That is putting a lot of faith his defense (and defensive metrics), which may not be a long term skill if he can’t keep his speed up (though his instincts are great). But that is 2.5-3 win player there. Now you need to hit to stick in a major league lineup all year so let’s look at the bat. The strikeout rate, is probably going to creep a bit down, as will the walk rate, but he works deep counts so neither should crater too much. That brings us to the big outlier in his profile, his power. Altherr put up a .248 ISO in the majors after putting up a .188 in AA and a .201 in AAA this year. If he has an ISO more in the .180-.200 range you are looking at a player hitting more .245/.330/.425 which is more along the lines of what Chris Coghlan did for the Cubs this year on his way to a 3 win season for them.
All of this pseudo-analysis put Altherr as a 3-4 win player with upside for a bit more. Now this still very optimistic because there is an adjustment period ahead for Altherr. Pitchers are going to give him a steady diet of offspeed pitches down and away and he is going to need to lay off of them. If he can he will be able to tap into his power, if not he could quickly regress into the 4th outfielder/platoon hitter we always thought he might be. Either way, there is a lot more to Aaron Altherr than there was to start this season, and he is firmly moved into the conversation of players that could solidify themselves as cornerstones of the Phillies’ rebuild.