Since assuming regular playing time in mid-April, Altherr has gone off for the Phillies, culminating with four homers and 10 runs batted in across two games and a pinch-hitting appearance earlier this week. So what’s his deal, anyway? And how sustainable is some manner of toned-down production of this ilk?
A German-born U.S. national, Altherr was drafted by Philadelphia out of an Arizona high school in the ninth round of the 2009 draft, signing for $150,000 as the longest of long-term projects. His standout athleticism had been largely committed towards hardwood endeavors in high school, before he turned to baseball late and produced loud numbers as a senior. He already stood 6-foot-3, and scouts were enamored with his elite quick-twitch athleticism and projectable frame, but wary of his raw physicality and baseball inexperience.
He made his one and only appearance on a team list here at BP ahead of the 2011 season, when KG (#RIP) ranked him eighth and noted his impressive physical tools and intriguing power-speed combination, but cautioning about an unrefined approach and significant gap between present and projected skill.
A strong performance in the high minors, followed by a continuation of his production in a 161-plate-appearance debut in 2015 had him lingering about sleeper and end-game target lists before last season.
What Happened Last Year?
Alas, a torn sheath tendon in his wrist knocked him out for the first half of the season in 2016, and he came back looking like a young guy who’d missed the first half of the season with a horrible wrist injury. He hit a bunch of line drives, which was good, but also saw a massive uptick in his ground-ball rate, particularly the pull variety thereof that tends to be the weaker variety. A lot of balls he hit were of the weaker variety, in fact. He swung and missed more, chased more pitches out of the zone, and probably did a bunch of other stuff that isn’t great for a hitter to do. It was, in the truest sense, a lost season—and one that came at a frustrating time, given the prior year’s upswing.
How’s It Going This Year?
Mmmm…pretty good. After yesterday’s two-homer outburst, the sun rose this morning to shine on Altherr’s .351/.435/.743 line with seven dingers and three stolen bases across 85 plate appearances. After drawing just three starts in Philadelphia’s first 13 games, an opportunity emerged when veteran Howie Kendrick hit the disabled list, and Altherr has run with it like Usain Bolt’s long lost twin brother.
He’s done it with some luck, to be sure, but he’s also done it by elevating the baseball. He’s back to hitting balls in the air much more frequently, and when he does his exit velocity is 90th percentile in baseball. He’s currently rocking the 10th best rate of 95-plus mph balls, nestled cozily between Nelson Cruz and Yasmany Tomas.
He’s also shown an impressive willingness to work counts in the early going as well, which is further reason for intrigue, especially from a guy dinged for an overly-aggressive approach through much of his ascent up the ladder. He’s chasing balls up above the zone, but by and large he’s doing what he should and spitting on balls down and out. Overall he’s swinging and missing at a slightly higher-than-average rate, but the overwhelming majority of those empty swings are happening against pitches outside the strike zone that, frankly, aren’t the ones on which you generally want to be ending at-bats anyway. His in-zone contact rate is very good, and the resulting production speaks to more of his at-bats terminating instead on favorably located pitches.
How It Going to Go For the Rest of the Year?
We can probably rule out an OPS pushing 1.200 for an entire slate of 500-some-odd at-bats, but all of that hard contact he’s been making is reason enough to buy into at least some of his BABIP success to date. While an absurd .422 mark isn’t sustainable, he has through a combination of foot speed and contact profile earned a well above-average mark so far.
My favorite part about how he’s done it is, well, how he’s done it. He’s made discernable mechanical changes to his stance since last season, designed to unlock more loft and power utility. To wit, I present you these two gifs, with the first belonging to an August at-bat 9 months ago, the second belonging to one a couple days ago:
The setup and launch stick out immediately as products of significant change year to year. His lower half is more closed-off in the setup for his current swing, and the front foot is flat and balanced, as opposed to up on its heel. He’s also starting and loading his hands at a lower position, and he’s dropped a prior bat waggle in favor of a steadier progression into his trigger decision.
The effects of these changes are, primarily, two-fold: his leg kick is more north-south oriented now, and it is more efficient in generating energy that is on-line towards the pitcher. Where before he drifted closed from an open launch, he’s now directing his lower-half energy straight towards his target.
And then the hand position change is particularly significant for a hitter his size and with his bat path. The trigger is more efficient (there’s that word again) in putting his barrel on trajectory and into the hitting zone. This both buys him more time to make in-swing adjustments to aid in plate coverage, and also allows him to generate more extension to pitches out front when he’s on time.
There are going to be strikeouts in his game, but these adjustments – both mechanical and approach-base – should give rise to optimism that they’ll increasingly by the kind that comes from running a bunch of deep counts against the best pitchers in the world. He’s now generating that kind of late bat speed you want to see in a hitter, and he’s contacting pitches in the zone like he should.
Outside of perhaps a short window ahead of the trade deadline, the Phillies certainly have far more incentive to see what Altherr can do over an extended look than they do to trot out Howie Kendrick every day once the veteran returns from the shelf. The kid’s hot start should earn him rope as a more-or-less everyday player for the foreseeable future, and I’m buying his ability to continue Bolting.