Achtung Baby: Comfortable and Confident, Aaron Altherr Finally Knows He Belongs | NBC 10 Philadelphia

Achtung Baby: Comfortable and Confident, Aaron Altherr Finally Knows He Belongs

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    Achtung Baby: Comfortable and Confident, Aaron Altherr Finally Knows He Belongs
    CSNPhilly.com
    Achtung Baby: Comfortable and confident, Aaron Altherr finally knows he belongs

    If you hit, they'll find a place for you in the lineup.

    It's one of the oldest sayings in baseball.

    And one of the truest.

    Nearly 100 years ago, a kid from Baltimore moved from pitcher to everyday player because the New York Yankees wanted to ride his bat in the regular lineup.

    Now, no one is comparing Aaron Altherr's game to that of George Herman Ruth, but, like the Babe, Altherr has Baltimore roots, and, like the Babe, he's forcing his way into the regular lineup with his bat.

    Altherr moved into the Phillies' starting lineup after left fielder Howie Kendrick suffered an oblique strain on April 15. Since then, Altherr has crushed the ball at a .351 clip (20 for 57). Half of his hits over that span are for extra bases, seven doubles and three homers, fueling an OPS of 1.071. Altherr's three-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning Sunday rescued the Phils from a 5-2 deficit and helped propel them to a 6-5 win over Washington.

    Altherr's hot spell has fans clamoring to see the 26-year-old outfielder play more.

    Well, he has played more. And he will continue to play more.

    For a couple of reasons.

    First, he's has earned it. The Phillies hired a new hitting coach in Matt Stairs over the winter and have asked their players to buy into what he's selling. Altherr has. He's benefitted from a mechanical adjustment in his stance that Stairs suggested and he's produced. He deserves to play more.

    Second, the Phillies owe it to themselves to see more of Altherr, to see if he can be the difference-making regular that some believe he can be, or the fourth outfielder that others believe he is. At 6-5 and 225 pounds, Altherr drips with tools that could make him a standout on both sides of the ball. Maybe he's reached the point where he's about to put it all together. The Phillies are still in a rebuild and this is a season where you give talents like Altherr (and Vince Velasquez) time to figure it out. In the meantime, guys as hot as Altherr can help you win some games.

    "It's important to see if he can sustain it," manager Pete Mackanin said. "If he sustains it, he becomes a real viable option to stay with the Phillies and be considered a core piece. I want to see more. We all do.

    "He's hitting his way into the lineup. That's what we're looking for. The way he's hitting -- give me that guy any day."

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    There has been some recent public handwringing about how to keep Altherr in the lineup when Kendrick is ready to return. Kendrick is probably a week or 10 days away from a minor-league rehab assignment and two weeks or more away from being activated to the 25-man roster.

    So Mackanin can seamlessly keep running Altherr out there and hitting him in the middle of the order for the next couple of weeks.

    Beyond that, it should not be difficult to keep Altherr in the lineup. He can play any outfield position -- with aplomb -- and that makes it easy for Mackanin to find him at-bats as others get days off. Altherr can also stay right in left field. The versatile Kendrick has recently dusted off his first baseman's mitt. He is expected to play some first base when he goes out on minor-league rehab. When he's ready to be activated, he could cut into Tommy Joseph's at-bats at first base. Joseph has struggled since the start of the season and there's an outcry to bring up heavy-hitting prospect Rhys Hoskins. But there's an intermediate step before that would happen and that's Kendrick. Joseph could preempt all this if he gets going at the plate.

    And there we go again. If you hit, you will play.

    Altherr has been down this road before. He's had chances to play and gotten off to hot starts but not sustained them. His first seven hits in the majors were all extra-base hits in 2015. He was going to get a shot to play regularly last season, but a spring-training wrist injury landed him in surgery and he didn't make it back until July. He ended up hitting just .197 with 69 strikeouts in 198 at-bats. The front office clearly did not believe he was a regular player. Otherwise, it would not have brought in corner outfielders Kendrick and Michael Saunders over the winter.

    Altherr is a quiet, even-tempered and peaceful young man.

    He noticed the wintertime acquisitions of Kendrick and Saunders but did not stomp his feet about them. Since being selected in the ninth round of the 2009 draft out of Agua Fria High School near Phoenix, he has made a methodical climb through the Phillies system. He subscribes to the "slow and steady wins the race" school of thought.

    "Unfortunately, I got hurt last year and when I came back I felt fine physically, but I just couldn't find the feel in my swing," he said. "The team made some additions. I can't control that. I went from thinking I might have a starting outfield spot to, 'OK, I'll fight for a fourth outfield spot.'

    "It's all in God's plan. I just try to keep an even keel."

    At the suggestion of Stairs, Altherr lowered his hands in his setup at the plate in spring training. As a player, Stairs had made the same suggestion to teammate Jayson Werth in 2010 and it paid off big for Werth. Altherr had success with the new setup late in camp and that has continued into the season. In short, his swing is shorter and his hands are quicker to the ball.

    "My hands are in a more relaxed position and that's the reason I'm quicker," he said. "I'm just more relaxed at the plate."

    Charlie Manuel used to say that a hitter needed to be tension-free to square up a baseball and produce runs. A relaxed hitter and is a dangerous hitter. Time will tell how long it lasts for Altherr, whether he can sustain, as Mackanin said. But one this is clear: He will get the opportunity.

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    Altherr's dad, Frank, is from Germany. His mom, Michelle, is a Baltimore native who served in the Air Force. She was stationed in Germany when she met Frank, a former pro soccer player for FC Kaiserslautern. They married and Aaron was born in 1991. Like many military families, the Altherrs moved often, from Germany to Kansas City and finally to the Phoenix area. Mom and Dad still live there, but they often have to make separate trips to watch their son play for the Phillies because "they have five dogs," Aaron said with a laugh.

    Though he can understand much of the language, Aaron was always a little too stubborn to fully learn German. But he does know what his last name translates to.

    "It means old man," he said with a laugh.

    The young Altherr had no desire to follow in his dad's footsteps and play soccer. He was a standout basketball player in high school and received Division I interest from the University of San Diego, Southern Methodist and Northeastern in Boston.

    "Northeastern," he said with a laugh. "Too cold."

    Altherr committed to play baseball at the University of Arizona but decided to sign with the Phillies for $150,000 after the 2009 draft. Eight years later, after a long minor-league climb, after big-league cameos and chances cut short by injury, he finds himself with the chance he's always craved. So far he's made the most of it. And he believes he's in the right place mentally and physically to sustain it.

    "Sometimes it takes a little longer for certain people to get comfortable," he said. "I just have a lot more confidence now. I always knew I could do it. I know I belong here now."