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What in the world happened to Aaron Altherr?

After a very good 2017, he broke this past season. Can we figure out why?

Philadelphia Phillies v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

When I reviewed the outfield members not named Hoskins, Herrera or Quinn, I found that the outlook for those players was bleak. They weren’t replacement level talents which hurt the team on the field as they continued searching for offense. It made them acquire Jose Bautista and any transaction that involves Bautista at this point in his career should be the team announcing they aren’t renewing his minor league deal.

What really stuck out this year was how bad Aaron Altherr was. He simply wasn’t good. His final line was .181/.295/.333 with only 8 home runs, 36 walks and 91 strikeouts in 285 plate appearances. This on the heels of a very productive 2017 (.272/.340/.516 with 19 home runs in 412 plate appearances) that brought optimism he’d be able to seize one of the corner outfield jobs and run with it. The bright eyed optimists will point to his numbers when he returned from a midseason demotion (.242/.324/.515 in 37 plate appearances), but those who would deride that production simply point at the small sample size and the fact he was doing this against September call-ups. Looking at the whole picture, the only nice part of his season?

A 69 OPS+.

Nice indeed.

So what happened? Is there something that can be pointed to as the sole cause of Altherr’s 2018 decline, or was it just bad luck all season long? After all, in seasons like these, one is reminded of our own Pat Burrell, who suffered through his worst season in 2003 (.209/.309/.404, 90 OPS+) only to bounce back and post seasons of 100 OPS+ or higher for five straight years. In other words, it’s possible that a player can just have a bad year and still come back to give a team some decent production. For Altherr, it’s a rather large question. With his having such a bad year and the team in a bit of a roster crunch heading into 2019, it’s fair to wonder whether or not he should be tendered a contract heading into the offseason. If the team is successful in their expected pursuit of Bryce Harper, there might not be any room for Altherr. It all depends on how the team views his slump. So, what happened?

Luck was involved

Usually, in these kinds of exercises, we wonder whether luck was involved. There is usually a number that helps with that and that is BABIP. From 2014 to 2017, in 805 plate appearances in the major leagues, Altherr’s BABIP stood at .306. Nothing bad there, right around league average. In 2018, that number plummeted to .247. That could help explain some of the issues with Altherr, especially when looking at the data.

A. Altherr batted ball 2015-18

Year PA GB% FB% LD%
Year PA GB% FB% LD%
2015 161 39.8% 37.8% 22.4%
2016 227 51.2% 22.5% 26.4%
2017 412 43.1% 37.5% 19.3%
2018 285 47.4% 34.4% 18.2%

Most of his batted ball rates stayed relatively the same, so a dip in BABIP helps explain some things. Does shifting help explain the dip? Not really. He’s not exactly someone who is shifted a whole lot, and the rate that he was, while it did increase (0.7% in 2017, 2.1% in 2018), doesn’t make a whole lot of noise. His Statcast information doesn’t really help either. His “expected” numbers are around 40-60 points higher than what he actually hit, but he’s still well below average with each stat. So what else helps explain his poor season?

What is he swinging at?

When we begin to look at what he was swinging at, we can begin to get a few more answers. Here are a few charts to consider. First, the difference in what he was swinging and missing at in 2017,

compared to what he was swinging at missing at in 2018.

The biggest changes you’ll see is with the pitches he is getting in the zone. He pretty much worse in several key areas when it comes to swinging and missing at pitches in hittable areas. I don’t mean that he was worse across the board, since there are several instances where he was actually swinging and making more contact within the zone. However, that contact wasn’t productive. Here is what happened when he did make contact in 2017

compared with 2018.

There are four key areas where he did damage in 2017 that he struggled with in 2018 - down the middle and up and in. These are also the areas he struggled making contact in from 2017 to 2018. So we can pretty much see the issue here, enough that we can make a proclamation. In 2017, he made more and better contact than he did in 2018 in pitches in the zone. Combine that with some pretty lousy luck and you’ve got a talented hitter putting up lousy results.

What does 2019 hold?

Even if we don’t factor in the Bryce Harper variable, it’s fair to wonder if Altherr will be back with the team. If everything stays as is, Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera and Nick Williams will be back with Roman Quinn as the fourth outfielder. Will the team tender Altherr a contract, his projected arbitration number being only $1.6 million? More importantly, with no minior league options remaining, will the team choose to protect him in the upcoming Rule 5 draft over other more desirable names in the minor leagues? While it seems to be an easy answer, it may not be as easy as it seems. Factor Harper back in, and the answer becomes hazier. Simply put, if Harper or any other outfielder is signed, it’s easier to see Altherr being let go.

Based on this evidence, it looks like Altherr’s season long slump was something that could be rectified. If Altherr is able to hit a few more balls with authority, find a few more holes, all of a sudden that slash line looks a lot better. It’ll be something to watch for in long as he’s still here with the team.