There is probably no bigger missed opportunity for the 2016 Phillies than Aaron Altherr's season. What makes the whole series of events so tragic is that it was nobody's fault, not Altherr's, not the Phillies. Then to top it all off, the nature of Altherr's injury forced us to watch him struggle on the field for two months without the physical ability to make improvements. The good news is that unlike with fellow outfielder Cody Asche, the Phillies want to see more of Altherr going forward.
Coming into the season the Phillies had Altherr penciled in as their everyday right fielder. He was coming off a season where he had blazed through AA and AAA on the way to breakout year. He topped it off by hitting .241/.338/.489 in 39 major league games while showing plus defense in all three outfield positions. There might have been some unreasonable expectations, but there was a chance that Altherr could be a major league regular for the Phillies on the back of his defense and new found power. Then of course after looking good in spring training he dove for a catch and hurt his wrist, requiring surgery that would put him out until late July.
Despite being cautioned that the injury could take a while to fully recover from and that his power would suffer, there was optimism around Altherr. He hit decently well on his minor league rehab, and then in his first game back for the Phillies he went 3-4 with a home run.
He would hit .191/.296/.268 over the next 56 games.
This is where evaluation gets hard. Altherr is not a can't miss prospect with a long track record, instead his stock and result have been up and down throughout his career. While his strikeouts were enormously high in 2016, he does have a history of strikeout spikes and his long arms give his swing some natural holes. The stats say that Altherr swung a bit more in 2016 and missed a bit more in 2016, what part of that was the wrist and what part was pitchers getting better at facing Altherr. Additionally we have to factor that Altherr missed over 4 months of game action and did not get a normal spring training, and while we would expect his timing to get better, it likely also affected his abilities this season.
The one place where we would expect an improvement for Altherr is in his ability to hit for power. In the majors in 2015, Altherr posted a .248 isolated slugging. Given that his previous high was .201 in AAA right before the promotion and it had been more around .180 in previous seasons, it was reasonable to expect some regression. In 2016 in the majors Altherr posted a .091 which is sub-Cesar Hernandez levels. His HR/FB rate remained constant, but he saw his groundball rate go from 39.8% to 51.2% almost entirely on the back of his fly ball rate. Additionally he saw a sharp decline in balls he hit to the opposite field. Both of these would indicate that Altherr was struggling to consistently make hard contact and was instead rolling over and pulling the ball to the left side consistently. Now this should change as his wrist strengthens and he can trust it again.
It is difficult to judge defense in small sample sizes, so I won't get into the small sample size metrics. However, the eye test says that Altherr continues to be a good defensive outfielder, especially in the corners. On the bases, his speed was still intact and he was 7 for 9 on stolen bases. Though he was rated a below average base runner overall, and like many of the Phillies young hitters he will need to make improvements in all aspects on the bases.
The reality is that the nearly 2 WAR in 40 games player of 2015 is a complete mirage, but also the disaster of 2016 was probably injury induced. This leaves Altherr stuck in the middle, which is fine because there is a role for an outfielder who can play all three outfield positions and get you 300-400 solid plate appearances a year. Maybe Altherr can get back to being a bit more than that, but for now it looks like he still has a future in red pinstripes.