The Future is Unwritten: Aaron Altherr
Happy New Year. Let’s get right to it.
Aaron Altherr is the type of athlete the Phillies have stereotypically selected in the amateur draft. They made him a ninth round pick in 2009 out of Agua Fria High School in Arizona and floated him a $150,000 bonus to keep him away from the University of Arizona. The German-born Altherr (his mother was stationed there as a member of the U.S. military and his father was a German pro soccer player) has had his share of developmental quirks. Labeled a project from the start, Altherr only began focusing on baseball during his senior year in high school (he was also a terrific basketball player) and entered pro ball quite raw. It took Altherr three years before he was finally able to stick in full season ball. In 2011, after 40 Low-A games in which he only tallied seven extra-base hits, he was demoted from Lakewood back to Williamsport. The SALLY League was just too much for him to handle at the time. He showed some progress in 2012 but was still considered a lottery ticket talent.
All of that led up to 2013, in which Altherr got his footing and had his most successful professional season yet. He hit .275/.337/.455, led the FSL in doubles (36) and was fifth in total bases. He finished the year in the Arizona Fall League where his performance suffered due to a hand injury. He’ll head to Reading to start 2014 and, for me, he’s a surefire bet to put on a Major League uniform and keep it on for a while. His ultimate role, however, remains unclear as Altherr’s profile epitomizes that of ceaselessly pejorative term, “Tweener.”
The 6’5” Altherr is built like Randy Moss. Long armed, long legged and athletic, he’s begun to fill out and add mass and strength to his once scrawny frame. How much Altherr has filled out, will continue to fill out and the way his size impacts his tools will have a significant impact on the player he ultimately becomes.
Simply because of his size, there’s always going to be some swing and miss here. Altherr’s long levers lead to issues getting around on velocity and/or getting the fat part of the bat to pitches on the inner half of the plate. Players of this size often have long swings, and Altherr’s can certainly get long. The height at which he loads his hands (up near his ear) adds a little length to the swing as well and he’ll cast the barrel of the bat once in a while. Mostly these issues are just things one is forced to accept when it comes to taller hitters. Otherwise, the swing is just fine. Altherr has simple feet, generates good bat speed, has shown an ability to adjust his hands to get to pitches inside (though doing so means he can’t extend properly, he’s shown the ability to drive the ball regardless) and has worked on improving his bat path. It’s hard not to like the athleticism in the cut. But, again, I say again boy, players of this size are going to strike out. This makes it hard for me to put anything more than a future 40 on Altherr’s bat.
Now we move on to the power and the defense which, in Altherr’s case, look to me like they may have a more pronounced inverse relationship than I’ve seen with most other prospects. Altherr’s already displayed playable big league power (I’ve got a 40 on it now) but now we have to discern how much more he’s going to add. Power comes from a number of places. Bat speed (which most people in the industry will tell you is mostly an inherent thing that you can only maybe marginally improve), pure strength, bat path/backspinning the ball at the point of contact and use of the hitter’s lower half. Altherr’s bat speed is fine but it’s not going to drastically improve. He already makes decent use of his lower half in his swing and it’s hard to envision him extracting too much more. He’s working on the bat path stuff but that may be in effort to cut down on strikeouts, not to boost power. That leaves us with the raw strength variable to discuss and it poses us with this question:
How much bigger and stronger do we think Aaron Altherr is going to get?
It’s a question each evaluator has to answer for himself/herself based on looking at Altherr, his parents if you can get a look at them, and players of his body type who have come before him. Let’s examine the last of those very briefly.
Here’s a list of Major League who are 6’4” or better and had 130 PAs or more in 2013
Of those, only freak-bodied Josh Hamilton and Giancarlo Stanton are what I’d consider to be “thick” while Kemp, Heyward, Sweeney, Rios and maybe Saunders are “full”. Brown is getting there. Only Mayberry, Werth and Fowler (I’m throwing out Pence. Everything about him and the way he does things is too strange to use as a precedent for anything. Pence probably brushes his teeth in a way far too bizarre to replicate but that works for him) have stayed notably skinny. I think it’s fair to peg Altherr for that middle group based on the way we’ve seen his body start to fill out. Nobody in that cluster has any worse than average or better raw power.
Based on my looks at Altherr and the power output of his physical contemporaries, I’m comfortable putting a future 50 on the power. You could talk me into a half grade more if you bat your eyes at me a little bit. So between the hit and power tools, I think the Phillies are looking at something in the .240-.260 range with 15-20 HRs HRs, maybe on the lower end of that because of all the swing and miss. But is a thicker, more powerful Altherr a better Altherr?
At present, this is a fairly lean, speedy, angular athlete who’s an easy plus runner underway (though it takes him a while to get those 6’5” legs started toward first after his swing so he’s more of a fringe-average runner from home to first) and who can play a viable center field with an average glove and arm. The weight/strength I expect Altherr to gain could slow him down and force him out of center field and shift him to a corner, where the bat may not play to everyday status.
In short, what this may be is a player whose physical projection is likely to leave him too slow to play center field every day but without enough bat to play in a corner at an average or better clip. It’s your classic 4th outfielder profile. The chances of Altherr somehow maintaining his speed and range in center while simultaneously adding mass and power seem small. Look back at that list of “full” outfielders. Several of them can play it in a pinch but none of them are dynamic, everyday defenders in center. I expect Altherr to progress in a similar fashion defensively, but I’ll have more opportunity to see him full time in Reading than I did the one week I was in Florida which will give me a better idea of how good the defense is and if it feels sustainable in the middle of the diamond.
I like Altherr and I think his upside is that of an everyday player if he can somehow stick in CF and coax the bat along a bit. Realistically, however, he’s a below average regular/fourth outfielder type for me. There’s value in it, but I don’t see the upside that some might see just because Altherr is so athletic.
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