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The Astros and the Phillies have something in common

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Yes, another rebuilding piece. But this one has good news!

Seattle Mariners v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

The statistical website Five Thirty Eight published a piece the other day concerning the Astros and how they have become baseball’s best team. If you have been paying attention, you’d already know Sports Illustrated beat them to the punch a few years ago, sagely predicting their World Series victory in 2017 three years before it becomes a reality this postseason, but taken as an individual piece, yes, they’re correct. The Astros are the best team in baseball.

As you are also aware, the Astros went through a painful rebuild of their organization akin to what the Phillies are going through right now in order to get to their current lofty status. While the present time seems as though it’s as bad as baseball can get, ask any Astros fan about the 2012-13 seasons. They’ll tell you that it can get worse. This led NBC Sports’ own and former Crashburn Alley editor Bill Baer to this tweet in the hopes of soothing the pain current Phillies fans are going through:

This got me to thinking about the Astros’ roster and how they have gotten so good. In order to succeed in baseball, a team needs at least a cornerstone player to build around. The Astros are lucky enough to have three such players in Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel, players that are good enough to be worth 6-8 wins each by themselves. A team will also need several players that, if you squint hard enough, might actually be cornerstone players themselves but don’t quite measure up to the actual cornerstone players on the roster. Lance McCullers and George Springer are what I would consider to be these types of players. I actually asked Bill if he saw some pieces similar to the Astros on the current Phillies roster, specifically does Aaron Altherr stack up closely to Springer.

You see he doesn’t brush it off, but concedes that perhaps in the long run, Springer might have more value.

However, I’m not convinced. In my humble opinion, the team already has Springer-lite in the form of Altherr. He is someone this team can bank on in the future as a contributor to a playoff team. Take a look at this year’s numbers between the two young outfielders (all stats through May 31):

Springer vs. Altherr

Player PA HR RBI K% BB% wRC+ BABIP AVG/OBP/SLG
Player PA HR RBI K% BB% wRC+ BABIP AVG/OBP/SLG
Springer 221 13 31 23.5% 9.7% 130 0.298 .265/.342/.500
Altherr 165 8 28 26.7% 9.0% 148 0.380 .299/.388/.549

This is just a quick snapshot of the two players and as always, we need to be wary of the small sample size monster, but as you can see, the similarities between the two players are actually quite close. While Springer does have a sizable lead in the power department, it has come in roughly 60 more plate appearances. Both exhibit the same amount of patience, while Altherr strikes out more often. The big disparity is that Altherr has been a whole lot luckier on batted balls than Springer, which accounts for the almost 35 point difference in batting average. Yet the final conclusion is that so far, Altherr has been a better run producer than Springer has in 2017.

Their similarities in stature also lends itself to discussing their defense. Both are tall, lean players who can cover a lot of ground in the outfield. They have the ability to play an average center field if needed, but are probably best suited to a corner. Altherr’s defensive numbers are lower than Springer’s are, but I would venture to say that is because he spending most of his time in left field. From a purely objective standpoint, Altherr is better suited to right field, currently occupied by Michael Saunders, which would probably boost his defensive profile.

What surprised me was their ages. While Springer does feel young still, it’s important to note he’s 27 years old, right in the thick of that theoretical peak players experience. He’s in his fourth season in the majors, so he’s established a track record that can help tell whether he’s going to get better or not. Altherr is both a year younger than Springer while also having far less experience in the big leagues than his American League counterpart.

The track record that Springer has established is probably the reason analysts like Baer don’t quite see Altherr in the same light as Springer. Quite simply: he hasn’t done it consistently for a long enough period to be considered that building block a team might use in its rebuild. Yet part of the learning curve of a player like Altherr is how he is able to make adjustments when pitchers figure him out. He’s already had to make some of those adjustments on the fly this year. From April 16 (when Howie Kendrick went on the DL) to May 10, he went crazy, hitting .364/.447/.758 with six home runs and 19 RBI. Since then, he’s cooled off considerably, going .243/.338/.343 with one home run and seven RBI. This type of slide was bound to happen due to his free swinging ways and profile as a hitter. The encouraging thing is that he seems to be adjusting back, going 7 for his last 22, knocking in three over those at bats.

Let’s compare that Springer. In his rookie season, he had a similar stretch where he was as hot as any hitter in the game. Then, the league adjusted:

G. Springer 2014

Time Period PA HR RBI BB% K% AVG/OBP/SLG
Time Period PA HR RBI BB% K% AVG/OBP/SLG
5/6-5/29/14 96 10 24 13.5% 28.1% .333/.438/.778
5/30-7/19/14 175 10 22 12.0% 35.4% .192/.314/.411

What do we gain from this? We gain the idea that Altherr’s current struggles are natural. They’re natural because struggling is part of a young player’s development. Let me repeat that idea for those that have not grasped it yet:

FAILURE AT THE BIG LEAGUE LEVEL IS NATURAL IN A YOUNG PLAYER’S DEVELOPMENT.

The Astros were successful in helping develop Springer because the team identified him as a key part of their rebuild, both in the drafting of him and the allowing of him to make adjustments at the big league level. You’ll notice that the date in those splits ends in mid-July. That is because he was hurt, not that he was sent down to “take a break” or “catch his breath” or whatever other nonsense phrase people use when they try to decide what’s best for the future of a young player. The Astros understood that the only way he would get better was to gut it out and keep swinging. He’s steadily improved, establishing himself as a legitimate 4-5 WAR player today. Now, the team is being rewarded with someone who is still providing cheap above average production and will continue to do so for the next two years, at least.

There is no suggestion here that Altherr is a better player than Springer or that he will become a superior player in the future. It is merely a look at two players that (slightly) resemble each other. The development track provided to young hitters is where the similarities need to happen between the Astros and Phillies. Altherr is not as hot as he was when Kendrick went down, that much is obvious. But it would be a massive mistake to either cut into his playing time or to consider sending him down to the minor leagues. He has the potential to be a part of the next playoff team, being that 3-5 WAR player that every team needs to be win. While each player is different and cases could be made that a trip to the minors would indeed be helpful, tt would be wise to follow the blueprint set out by another team that went through what the Phillies are going through right now. Let Altherr keep getting those valuable major league at bats. It could end up being a boon to them in the long run.