In June, Alec Asher became the second Philadelphia Phillie suspended for a positive PED test in 2016. Asher and reliever Daniel Stumpf were both pegged for drug tests that revealed Turinabol, an anabolic steroid popularized by East Germany’s propensity to feed it to their Olympic athletes in the 1970s and 80s.
Called up for his first taste of the big leagues late in 2015, Asher made seven starts for a pitiful starting rotation that most frequently handed the ball to Aaron Harang (29 starts, 4.86 ERA) and Jerome Williams (21 starts, 5.80 ERA). Pause for gasps of horror.
Somehow, Asher fared even worse. He went 0-6 allowing over a run an inning and a hit in one-third of all at-bats while striking out just two hitters for each of his eight home runs surrendered.
After that disappointing start to his Phillies career, the coaching staff assigned him some winter homework: focus on your two-seam fastball, the four-seamer lacks velocity and is simply too flat.
To begin his 2016 season, Asher pitched well in four starts each in double-A and triple-A in large part due to a dependency on his shiny new two-seamer. He threw 25.1 innings in April for the Reading Fightin Phils with a 3.20 ERA and went 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA in four starts for Lehigh Valley, allowing 15 hits in 29.1 innings.
Shortly thereafter, news of Asher’s 80-game suspension broke. The 25-year-old would not pitch again until three short appearances for the Phillies’ rookie affiliate in the Gulf Coast League and a start for Reading as his suspension wound down in August.
That two-seamer propelled him to a much more stable second stint with the big club. In his five-start, 2.28-ERA month of September with the Phillies, he held opponents to a .216/.257/.294 slash line with a 3.6% walk-rate.
Asher completely reversed his fastball usage this season in accordance with the organization’s wishes. Where in 2015 Asher threw his four-seamer four times more than his two-seamer, the story this season was the opposite. He threw his two-seamer more than four times as much as his flat four-seamer that Pete Mackanin saw knocked around in 2015.
In 2015, Asher went to his four-seamer 49.3% of the time while throwing his two-seamer for just 11.6% of all offerings. This season, exactly half of his pitches were two-seamers, throwing just 38 four-seamers (9% of all pitches).
Opponents struggled to make solid contact, hitting .191 against the two-seamer. Lefties, more than righties, struggled with the pitch that tailed away from their barrels. In 28 left-handed at-bats that ended with a two-seamer, only four came on the inside half if the plate, proving the pitch’s effectiveness in drawing swings as it dives away from the hitter.
The alteration seemed to work for Asher on each level he pitched at this season. He no longer displays the borderline mid to low 90s fastball advertised when he came over from Texas. He is firmly planted in the low 90s and now that he relies on the two-seamer, he resides most often around 90 mph. His groundball rate in the majors wasn’t as high as it was in the minors. That is something to look out for in 2017 if injuries allow him to crack the starting rotation at some point this season.
In just five starts, he accrued 0.6 WAR, the same as number as Adam Morgan in his 23 appearances. Yes, I too am baffled that Morgan managed a positive WAR this season (113.1 IP, 81 runs, 6.04 ERA, 4.98 FIP, 1.500 WHIP), but I digress.
All in all, Asher didn’t pitch at any one level for more than five consecutive starts, making it very tough to make appropriate judgments about his play this season. Assigning a firm grade, to me, feels a bit misleading with such small, chopped up sample sizes. When he pitched, he pitched well. But he couldn’t play consistently after being popped for taking gym candy. He didn’t earn any credits toward his degree for his shortened 2016 performance, but pitched well enough not to fail.