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Aaron Altherr is broken

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The Phillies outfielder is having a miserable start to season. Why?

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Boston Red Sox Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the season, Aaron Altherr probably knew that his playing time would be cut back because of the playing time rotation that would exist on the team. He, like any other player, probably also figured that if he just hit like he did last year, like he is capable of, he would have no problem staying in the lineup, forcing others to be rotated in and out. That, however, has not happened. Through Tuesday’s game, Altherr is hitting a miserable .077/.250/.231 in 48 plate appearances. There have been flashes, like his grand slam against the Marlins on April 7, but other than that, he has looked terrible at the plate. The question is why. There are always the standard questions we ask about a hitter when he is struggling:

  • Has the opposition changed their approach to him?
  • Is he swinging at more bad pitches (i.e. how’s their plate discipline?)
  • Is he getting unlucky?

Looking at his standard numbers doesn’t do much good since we can plainly see that he’s been bad. So, we have to look under the hood a little more.

The first question leads in to the other two questions, so we’ll start there. Looking at how opposing pitchers are attacking Altherr, we can see some subtle changes. We can see that in the pattern of pitches they are throwing Altherr, there seems to be more of an emphasis on throwing him fastballs, especially here in the early going.

That is a difference from last year, when teams attacked him by throwing a lot of breaking stuff. However, during his stay on the disabled list, the scouting report was probably refined. Once he came back from his injury, they began using the approach that is being copied this year, which is more of the hard stuff. The reason that approach has been amplified in 2018 is a sound one. As 2017 went on, he was swinging and missing more often at fastballs, a pattern that has carried over into this season.

The sample size is still quite small for this season, but the pattern is noticeable. He’s swinging and missing more often on the fastball than he was last year when he was hitting well. Now, the placement of those pitches has not changed much for Altherr, as pitchers are still attacking him down and away more than anything, especially with the breaking pitches. It’s an adjustment that pitchers have made that Altherr has yet to adjust back on. For him to have more success this season, he must improve against fastballs.

Looking at his plate discipline, we see some more differences in what Altherr is doing this year as opposed to last year. Here is chart that shows how often he is swinging at pitches in and out of the zone, as well as how often he is making contact with those pitches:

Altherr plate discipline

Year O-Swing % Z-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact %
Year O-Swing % Z-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact %
2016 26.8% 64.0% 52.9% 83.1%
2017 28.5% 63.7% 52.0% 83.0%
2018 27.0% 69.1% 47.1% 85.1%

He’s swinging at a lot more pitches in the zone than before, but he’s not doing much with them. The other thing to notice is that he is making contact with pitches out of the zone at a much lower rate. The balls he is making contact with are not exactly scorching either. He currently has a 45.8% soft contact rate, which is more than double his career norm. He’s still walking at a huge rate (18.8%), but is also striking out a ton (31.3%). What all this tells us, I’m not sure, but that seems to be the only discernible difference in his plate discipline.

Then there is always the question of luck. Is Altherr really just unlucky? Well, yes and no. He’s currently sporting an absolutely unsustainable .045 BABIP. (Play Index rabbit hole: this BABIP is currently the 9th worst all time for any non-pitcher with at least 40 plate appearances in a season). But, we also have to balance that out by pointing out that he’s hitting the ball in the air 50% of the time, balls that are much easier to turn into outs than balls hit on the ground. You can point to luck a little bit to help explain his glacial start, but it doesn’t explain away all of his issues.

Finally, we can look at some different swings he’s taking, since his issues could be a continuous timing issue. We all know how much timing is important to a hitter’s success. Altherr has struggled since the beginning of spring training, so he’s really had some problems with it. So let’s look at two pitches here.

The first is a cutter, right down broadway, last week against Tampa Bay that Altherr swings through for strike three:

The second is from last year against Julio Teheran, a 92 mile an hour fastball that he deposits into the left field seats. Same location, different movement but an almost negligible difference in velocity:

I’ve watched these swings about 25 times each and the same thing keeps jumping out to me. On the home run swing, his front foot is coming down almost at the exact point his bat meets the ball. On the strikeout, that same front foot is coming down a split second before he starts his swing. Is that a result of the difference in velocity? Perhaps, but to this untrained eye, four miles an hour of difference shouldn’t cause this much of a problem.

So, what can we conclude? Well, it definitely looks like there is a timing problem with Altherr’s swing. He’s getting that front foot down a bit too early right now, which could explain why so many balls he’s hitting are registering as “soft contact”. The solution? That’s for the team to decide. More than likely, the team has already identified what is “wrong” with Altherr and is working on it. His work ethic that we have seen gives fans confidence he’ll continue trying to be better. If and when he does improve, it’ll make what is shaping up to be a pretty good offense even better.

Thanks to Paul Boye for the gif-making.