Explaining Cody Asche’s struggles this season

April 30th, 2014 by Kyle Lutz | Filed under Baseball, General, Phillies.

(Kim Johnson Flodin/AP)

The Phillies’ young, 23-year-old third baseman Cody Asche has seen his fair share of struggles thus far this season, and the learning curve for him appears to be in full effect going forward.

Asche’s in his second season with the team after being promoted from AAA Lehigh last July, on the 30th. Cody put forth a solid effort with Lehigh last year, eventually earning himself a spot on the IL team (Class AAA International League) in the Triple-A All-Star Game. Prior to his promotion to the Major League level, he was batting a solid .295, with 15 home runs and 68 RBIs to boot. He would go on to be named the team’s Player of the Month for the month of July. The Phillies’ upper management decided to call him up in order to give him an extended look at playing third base, particularly to compare him to fellow third baseman Maikel Franco, the latter of which is currently with Lehigh; filling in for Asche. 

Even if Franco ends up becoming a star; all while overshadowing and making Philadelphia fans forget about Asche; if the latter doesn’t succeed in his Major League career, Asche is a piece that could remain in the organization nonetheless. This of course depends upon his willingness to be liberal; in trying new approaches at the plate, field, or within a new position on the field, given it comes down to that.

The team doesn’t have as much depth in positional spots like they did a few years ago when they had a successful blend of young stars and veterans yearning for a championship ring.

Asche somehow won a spot on the team out of Spring Training this past season over Franco, despite only hitting a meager .170 in Spring Training. In Spring Training he was tied for the team lead in home runs and RBIs with 3 and 8, respectively. Thus, it’s assumed that the team considering that fact, as well as the lack of depth at third base coming into this year, when determining whether or not he’d make the club. Apparently they saw something in him that his batting average didn’t.

And yet, even though we’re only 26 games into the season, Asche hasn’t hit any better in the regular season; posting a BA of just .200 in 60 at-bats.

What makes it worst, perhaps the worst part, is that he lacks the plate discipline thus far in his career to be able to succeed exceptionally. If he can turn this bad start around and hit for average, it’ll be marginal success, unless he elevates his game further and takes more pitches.

It was a problem for him in the minors as well. Last year with Lehigh he averaged just 43.3 walks per 500 at-bats (he totaled 35 walks in 404 at-bats); nothing special. Despite his batting average being .295, his OBP was just 57 points higher at .352.

Stolen bases, on top of walks, aren’t a part of Asche’s game either yet. He’s not a stocky nor slender guy; listed at 6’1, 200 pounds; the exact same height/weight combo as his idol Chase Utley’s. Thus, based on that, you would think he would be willing to be more aggressive on the base paths. If he did that, surely — in a way — it would help his game as it has Jimmy Rollins, the latter of which primarily swings at first pitches and doesn’t take walks, yet (mostly due to his size and speed) makes up for it with aggression and results in the stolen base department. I’m not in anyways shape of form comparing Asche to Rollins, I’m just making note of what the former could do to up his game with hopes of staying on the team or not being traded come mid-July.

Perhaps manager Ryne Sandberg and Amaro, Jr. should have went with Franco as the starter at third, instead of Asche, come this season?

Then again, Franco isn’t hitting any better at AAA Lehigh this year. In fact, he’s hitting worst; batting just .176, with one home run in 85 at-bats. Like Asche, Franco has had horrible plate  discipline as of late; walking only 10 times in 277 at-bats last season with Clearwater and Reading. And Franco had to have a solid Spring this year in order to really win the race over Asche for the job at third. So, even though he hit equally as poor in Spring Training, Asche had leverage in that department because of his experience at the end of last year, as well as Franco hitting just .184 in 38 at-bats this Spring.

Sandberg values Asche’s (albeit limited) experience over Franco’s, while Cody seemed to understand the concept of learning experiences following last year’s call-up.

“Anytime you can get to experience something and do it again, you will be better for it, so it was a big learning experience for me,” Asche said.

On the depth chart this year, Jayson Nix (younger brother of former-Phillies’ outfielder Lance Nix) and Freddy Galvis began the year as Asche’s backups at third. Galvis originally was Utley’s backup at second, but with Asche’s struggles at the plate, he was utilized more so at third than second. But as poor as Asche’s been at the plate this year, Galvis has somehow been even worst. So far, in 30 ABs, he has just one hit and a batting average of .033. Galvis’ OBP isn’t much better either at .091. He’s played in 12 games this year, starting seven of them; five starts of which were at third in place of Asche. On average since he came into the league a year ago, Cody hasn’t hit many triples either; arguably one of his strengths in Minor League ball: putting good contact on the ball, as well as hustling on the base paths. He had a career-high six triples just two years ago in the minors, in 518 at-bats split between Clearwater and Reading.

One of his issues in the Majors compared to the minors is his strikeout rate, per at-bats. If you calculate how many strike-outs he’s averaged per 500 at-bats in comparing the two, there’s a major difference. In minor league ball two years ago with Clearwater/Reading, he averaged 89.76 strikeouts per 500 ABs (he had 93 total strikeouts in 518 ABs that year). Fast-forward a couple years later, if you combine his two years in the majors (due to a small sample size; being in the Majors for only a short time thus far), he averages 139.6 strikeouts per 500 ABs so far in his major league career (62 strikeouts/222 ABs); a staggering difference of 50 strikeouts between the two.

That’s a huge factor in his game, and why he hasn’t had much luck hitting for average so far with the Phillies. Asche’s strikeout-rate went up a fair amount last year in Lehigh, compared to his 2012 season, so this isn’t an all-of-a-sudden problem that occurred overnight for him. Last year with Lehigh, per 500 at-bats, he averaged 117.5 strikeouts; 28 more on average than the year before.

Of course, Major League ballplayers go through hot and cold streaks throughout each season like it’s nothing, but it’s extremely imperative that Asche not only learns fundamentals from being with the big club and learning from veteran players but applying that new-found knowledge to his game and plate discipline. Which he has not done thus far. It’s essential as well for fans and analysts not to immediately write off a young/inexperienced player so soon, after results are bad or mixed at the start, because of the learning and playing experience. See Sergei Bobrovsky for the Flyers; circa a couple years back, if you want a perfect example of such a case. Not that Asche will be a star as fast as Bobrovsky has, but it’s a point to be made to be patient with the young players, to see what the potential holds down the line; if anything.

Confidence, or lack thereof, is another component of success as an athlete. Injuries are a part of that. Asche suffered a brief, two-day hand injury in early March of this past Spring Training. Even though it was only a minor injury and setback, it can no doubt play with a player’s mind; all while raising doubts in their head. Such as: will this injury, minor or not, ever come back in the near future? What can I do to prevent this from occurring again, on and off the field? How will this affect my game? And so forth. Point being: younger guys, in any field in today’s age, generally panic more; especially in uncharted territory.

He also suffered a hamstring injury (described by Ryne Sandberg as a “very slight hamstring tweak”) three weeks ago in a 9-4 loss to Milwaukee on April 9th in the sixth inning. Cody’s just three for his last 16 at-bats, as well as 5-34 dating back to April 10th, after a hot start to the season. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that April 10th, the start of his poor streak at the plate, was the next day after he suffered that aforementioned slight hamstring injury. Could the hamstring be affecting him? It’s very plausible, after looking at his on-field statistics at the plate following that incident. Perhaps it’s not strong enough of an injury to sideline him on the DL for weeks at a time, but rather one that merely affects some of his game; such as his hitting and plate discipline. Maybe the injury isn’t affecting his play, and instead he’s just been poor statistically as of late, but it seems more than just a coincidence when you compare his stats and injury date.

Asche went on to start, and complete, the next day’s game vs. Milwaukee following the hamstring issues. On top of that, he went through a brief but brutal seven-game hit-less streak that spanned nine days. 

The Phillies, for now, seem to be delegating Asche back into a reserve’s role on the team following the poor offensive start, and perhaps a slight injury as well. Less than a week ago, he had started less than half of the team’s past 11 games at that time (5), as well as riding the bench furthermore for three out of the four games at Los Angeles. This all occurred after he started eight out of the team’s first 10 games this year.

Manager Ryne Sandberg at that time, on April 24th, told MLB.com he does not have to talk with Asche about the situation, even with Freddy Galvis, his replacement, struggling mightily.

“I don’t need to because I already have,” he said. “I just told him to be ready to go in any capacity. The biggest change in the last three games is quality pitching and good defense behind. Freddy has been a part of that combination for the last three games.”

Thus, it seems that, unless he gets hot or an injury to Galvis/Nix occurs, Asche will be a bench player primarily for the team for now.

He isn’t necessarily a solid, nor reliable, fielder either thus far in his short career. Not that, besides Franco, the team really has a star in the wing at third just waiting for Asche to further erupt. And he’s been regressing in that department lately. Cody’s range factor so far is 2.47; slightly down from last year’s mark of 2.72. On top of that, he already has two errors this season in 131 innings played, with a fielding percentage of just .947 (last year, in 383.2 innings played, his fielding percentage was slightly higher at .959). This isn’t an overwhelming scare, or horrible, but his defense is one of many things in his game that he needs to work on extensively.

In this case, with Asche being in the Majors for the first time as a starter, it could play with his head- and thus his game because of that. This isn’t to say he’s immature, dumb, an over thinker, or a bad ball player, but rather just to question whether or not he’s what’s needed at the moment for the Phillies. On top of Galvis’ poor offensive output, new-guy Jayson Nix hasn’t been any better than the two. Nix is hitting just .161 in 31 total at-bats this season. None of the three, even when at their best, provide any significant pop for Sandberg either; so Asche’s only leverage over the other two is age and attributing his poor hitting to lack of experience/play.

Nix’s career-high of home runs came four seasons ago, split with the White Sox and Indians, when he hit just 14 in over 300 ABs. Galvis, meanwhile, averages just 10 home-runs per 162 games so far in his brief two and a half year career. As backed by statistics, Asche has shown that he’s not one for pop either, so he must try to make up for it in other areas.

Asche is having difficulty, like many young players do when they first start out, hitting the opposition’s breaking ball this year. On top of his high strikeout marks, he’s barely getting wood on balls he is making contact with. As a hitter, he’s getting ground-ball outs more often because of that; 53.7% of the time, up from 43.7% last season. Despite that, he is taking slightly more pitches per at-bat — even though that’s not saying a whole lot — than last year with the Phils; 4.28 to 3.91. All things considered, he’s still a poor hitter when it comes to patience and taking walks.

Another reason Asche has been riding the bench as of late is due to his fielding inferiority to Galvis (especially) and Nix, mostly the former. Not only has Galvis been perfect in not registering an error thus far in the field this season, but his range factor overall in comparison is higher as well than of Asche’s; 3.04 to 2.47. Sure, Galvis has played 60 fewer innings than Asche has, but regardless of that, the latter still needs to significantly work on his defense: his arm, range, grip, etc.

CBS Sports projected Asche to hit .259 with 14 home runs, 56 runs, and 65 RBIs in 460 at-bats this season. I don’t foresee that coming close to occurring, unless major changes to his approach are made, but I’m glad that Asche is so well grounded off the field; a mentality that could save him from being demoted amidst this season or further on down the road in his career. Perhaps the team should either wait it out on Asche/Franco, or look for a short-term option this season at the deadline at third until either of the two, or another prospect, come around at the hot corner.

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