Aaron Altherr has Phillies excited about his swing

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Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Altherr bats against the New York Yankees in a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Tampa, Fla.

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Nine days before Aaron Altherr's November wedding in Arizona, the Phillies traded for Howie Kendrick. That filled one corner outfield spot. After Altherr and his wife, Samantha, honeymooned in Bora Bora, he visited a batting cage every other day. It was in December when, finally, his swing felt right.

"Oh, there it is," Altherr recalled thinking. "Now we're good."

Then, in January, the Phillies signed Michael Saunders. He filled the other corner spot, the one Altherr had hoped to win. He is 26, and still an unknown because his major-league time has been limited to a mere 340 at-bats.

Still, it was not hard to interpret the message sent by the front office. It was skeptical about Altherr's future. His response this spring, one year removed from serious wrist surgery, has been impressive. He has displayed an improved approach and power stroke.

"I can't really look too far into it," Altherr said about the two veteran additions ahead of him. "I can't really control stuff like that. I can control what I do on the field. I'm just going to show them what I can do. Who knows what happens from there?

"Plus, they're two great guys. I am happy to have them on the team. They bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the team. It's going to be fun working with them, for sure."

Altherr projects as the Phillies' fourth outfielder, although he could gain a few starts every week. Saunders, 30, owns a checkered health history. Kendrick, 33, is not getting younger. And, on the days Altherr does not start, he will often be used as a late-inning defensive replacement when the Phillies are ahead. Manager Pete Mackanin has identified Altherr as the best defensive outfielder on the roster.

His productive spring is what the Phillies envisioned for Altherr last spring. The right-field job was his, until he tore the tendon sheath in his left wrist, which required surgery last March. He returned July 28. It is reasonable to wonder how the wrist affected Altherr's swing. He knows it did.

"It's hard to describe," Altherr said. "Physically, last year, I felt fine. I just knew something was off. Something you just know. You feel that something just isn't right. I don't know how to explain it."

Numbers support what Altherr cannot articulate. His slugging percentage dropped in 2016 by 196 points, a direct effect of not hitting the ball in the air. During his fruitful 161 plate appearances in 2015, Altherr hit fly balls 38 percent of the time, with just 40 percent of his batted balls on the ground.

But, in 227 plate appearances last season, Altherr managed to hit the ball in the air just 23 percent of the time. He hit it on the ground 51 percent of the time.

FanGraphs, using data from Baseball Info Solutions, categorizes the type of contact a hitter makes on all of his batted balls. That data said Altherr made "hard" contact at a similar rate in 2016 (29.5 percent) as he did in 2015 (29.3 percent). It was just where he hit the hard balls that resulted in a decrease in production.

He is at his best when he is hitting the ball in the air.

"For sure," Altherr said. "Line drives are homers. That's what I try to do . . . hit the ball hard and try to get the carry on the ball."

Altherr has worked this spring with new hitting coach Matt Stairs to lower his hands. Stairs wants Altherr to be quicker to the ball. A shorter path to the ball could help him drive more pitches.

"If you want to play, you've got to hit," Mackanin said. "If he hits, there's no telling what we can do. He's making real good adjustments at the plate right now, so we're going to keep looking at him and see what happens."

Spring statistics are skewed, especially this spring, when more teams have used minor-league pitchers deeper into camp. If Altherr's seven extra-base hits in 53 plate appearances provide a modicum of encouragement, so be it.

"It's a matter of me feeling more comfortable with my swing," Altherr said. "Last year, I just didn't have the feel for it. It was hard for me to do what I know I can do."

mgelb@philly.com

@MattGelb

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