Asche Found His Bat
Back in 2013, Cody Asche made his major league debut for the Phillies following a quick rise through their minor league system. While he wasn’t topping any prospect lists, Asche looked to have a capable bat, and he represented a much needed injection of youth in an otherwise aging roster. But the capable bat didn’t fully translate to the major league level, and Asche spent the next few years posting consistently sub-par offensive numbers while working his way down the defensive spectrum. So coming into the 2016 season, it’s fair to say that most fans had given up on Asche as any part of the team’s future.
But following an oblique strain that kept him sidelined through the end of May, Asche has spent the better part of the last month looking like the hitter the Phillies thought they were getting back in 2013. Through 80 plate appearances this year, Asche has a wOBA of .343, a number that places him 14% better than the league average. And while this wouldn’t be the first time Asche has hit this well over the course of a month, it is the first time his success at the plate is supported by any underlying changes.
Asche spent his first 1000+ plate appearances doing pretty much everything at or below a league average level, with his only notable trait being a pretty good line drive rate. But hitting a few more line drives is not going to lead to offensive success on its own. So this year, Asche has gotten considerably better at doing one other thing: not swinging the bat.
Asche has gone from being one of the more aggressive hitters in the league to one of the more selective hitters, and much of the impact has come by reducing his O-Swing%. Pitches out of the strike zone induce a lot of swing and misses, so simply not swinging at those pitches would imply an increase in contact rate. And that’s exactly what’s happened with Asche, who has increased his year over year Contact% from 77% to 81%. As a result of the improved contact, Asche has lowered his strikeout rate from 24% to 19%, and to put context on the extent of this drop, here it is in graph form*:
* K% in this graph is based on AB’s and not PA’s
Because Asche’s patience also extends inside the strike zone, as can be seen in his lower Z-Swing%, the implication is that he is being more selective with his swings, looking for pitches that he can square up. So far, the results have played out that way, as both his line drive rate and hard hit percentage are in the top 10% of their respective categories this year. But even with some likely regression in those areas, Asche’s improved strikeout rate alone is enough to sustain a solid offensive game going forward.
Because swing rate is quick to stabilize, at a little less than 50 plate appearances, we can’t write off the numbers on account of the sample size. There is legitimate change driving these improvements, and the key will be for Asche to stick with his patient approach as the season progresses.
Asche is still a flawed player. His lack of range is probably going to keep him from ever being considered more than a below average outfielder. But for the first time in his career, his defensive shortcomings are actually being outweighed by what he’s doing at the plate. He’s still hitting line drives, but now he’s added a little more contact and power to his offense. In doing so, he’s raised his profile from replacement level player to average major leaguer. It’s not the most exciting of outcomes for Asche, but it’s a lot more than most expected coming into this year, just as long as he keeps that bat on his shoulder.