The Case For Alec Asher
Everyone knew who the Orioles were at the start of the 2017 season.
The starting pitching would for the most part get mashed around during their stints of four, five or six innings. The offense would smash a ton of homers, for the most part providing more runs than the starters would give up. And the bullpen would nail down victories – or at least outlast the opponent’s bullpen, thus giving that offense a chance to win it with some of those well-timed taters.
Knowing all of this, any time the O’s get a solid outing from a starting pitcher, it should not only cause much delight and celebration, it should also cause us to pause and take a second look at that pitcher. Dylan Bundy has grabbed much attention so far – and rightly so – for his solid start to the season, and Kevin Gausman finally had a good outing as well after a shaky beginning.
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But there is another player whose performance has drawn much less attention, his sole outing of the 2017 campaign in danger of becoming little more than a blip on the radar.
That player is Alec Asher, and he is a pitcher who deserves a closer look.
On the surface there is little that is interesting about Asher, who was purchased from Philadelphia for a framed photograph of Camden Yards and a box of crab cakes (actually it was a PTBNL or cash) in late March. He’s a 25-year-old right-hander who was a 23rd-round draft choice by San Francisco in 2010, then after choosing community college instead, was a fourth-rounder by Texas in 2012. The Orioles are his third organization.
While Asher is listed at a solid 6-4, 230 pounds, he doesn’t throw particularly hard, living in the low-90s and 80s. His journey through the minors has been at best nondescript, at times bumpy, and he hasn’t been ranked as a prospect by “Baseball America” since 2014, when he was tabbed No. 13 in the Rangers organization. His numbers aren’t sexy, and it’s hard to imagine any player that was acquired so cheaply as being worth much, right?
Even Asher’s debut for the Orioles on Saturday (6.1 innings, three hits, five strikeouts, one run) could be chalked up to small sample size and catching a struggling Toronto squad by surprise, right?
You see, Asher has a plus tool nestled deep in his profile – control. Indeed, BA rated Asher as having the “Best Control in the Texas League” in 2014. His BB/9 in six years of professional baseball is 2.2. And it’s been pretty consistent on every level, including 2.1 across 13 big league starts.
Asher might not have top-tier ace stuff that makes you sit on the edge of your seat, but he does have some competent weapons, and he knows where they’re going when they leave his hand. There’s something to be said for that.
All of that being said, it didn’t look like Asher would be much of a major leaguer when he got his first shot with the Phillies in 2015. Quite frankly, he was overmatched, producing an ERA over 9, a WHIP that pushed 1.800 and eight home runs surrendered in just 29 innings. This was spread over seven starts in late August and September.
According to Brooks Baseball, during that stretch Asher primarily used a four-seam fastball (37%), sinker (24%) and slider (23%), with the occasional change (13%) and a rarely-used curve ball (3%). Pretty much everything was crushed.
It was back to the drawing board after that. He made changes to his mechanics heading into 2016, but he also made changes to his pitch selection. The four-seam fastball (18%) and slider (14.5%), while not abandoned, were used far less frequently. His curve (9%) and change (18%) got more play, but mostly he became a sinker-baller (41%).
The results were stunning, as in a five-game stretch with the Phillies late last season, Asher allowed just one home run in 27.2 innings, an ERA of 2.28, a FIP of 3.33 and a WHIP of 0.940.
The evolution seems to have continued this season, as (again, according to Brooks) he stifled the Blue Jays with cutters (41%), curves (28%) and sinkers (26%).
One odd thing: When I looked at these numbers, I expected a decent increase in his ground ball rate, which would seem to be a reasonable expectation for a guy who had replaced his four-seam/slider combo with sinkers, curves and cutters right? I was surprised when I didn’t see one. In fact, his ground ball rate has actually decreased – from 36.1% in 2015, to 35.2%, and (if it matters) 33.3% against the Jays.
What Asher did do, however, was decrease the exit velocity on his pitches. In 2015, according to Statcast, his average exit velocity was 88 mph. Eight percent of his pitches that were put in play found “barrels.”
Last season, his average exit velocity dropped to 87 mph, and just one pitch (1.2%) was barreled. The one home run he allowed wasn’t even that well-struck – a 358-footer that left Jay Bruce’s bat at 99.5 mph and just cleared the wall to land in the Citizens Bank Ballpark bushes. You can watch it here.
All of this, of course, should be taken with a small-sample-sized grain of salt. But when you look at these improvements, in addition to his minor league numbers from last season (2.28 ERA, 0.844 WHIP, 0.7 HR/9, 1.3 BB/9 over 106.2 innings), there is evidence that Asher has developed a pitch arsenal and method that works for him and can be effective moving forward.
He might not wow you with his stuff and he might not miss a ton of bats, but Asher appears to have learned how to pitch, how to keep batters off balance, how to induce weak contact. He practically said as much after his outing against Toronto.
“I felt good,” he said. “It is tough to get the loss but I feel like we battled as a team. I felt good out there and just hoping to continue that. Everything was working pretty well for me. But just concentrating on staying down and getting weak contact and working off of that.”
Asher is not going to be the ace of the Orioles staff. He’s not going to supplant Gausman or Bundy. Nor is he going to replace Chris Tillman, who appears to be on track to return in early May.
Perhaps Wade Miley will continue to live a charmed life despite walking the world. Perhaps Ubaldo Jimenez will suddenly rediscover the form he showed in the second half of 2016. More likely, though, Miley’s methods will catch up to him, and Jimenez’s maddening inconsistency will continue to madden.
The Orioles have not committed to giving Asher another look. They viewed him as a good matchup against the righty-heavy Blue Jays. The next time the Orioles need a fifth starter, on April 22 against Boston, they might turn to lefty Jayson Aquino or somebody else.
I’d be curious to see what Asher could do against a powerful offense like Boston’s. Would he continue to keep hitters off balance? Would he continue to induce infield popups, weak fly balls and soft grounders? It would be an interesting test case, and one worth taking a look at.
Maybe Asher is nothing more than a AAAA guy worth an occasional spot start in the majors. Maybe he’s at best a long-man/mop-up bullpen guy.
But there is growing evidence that he is onto something, that he can be more than that. That he can be, at least, a better option for the back end of the rotation.
For the Orioles, who have struggled to put together a solid starting rotation for some time now, it would be to their benefit to find out.