FRISCO, Texas—Just looking at Alec Asher’s numbers with Double-A Frisco this season doesn’t tell the whole story. Through 19 starts, the 22-year-old righty is 7-9 with a 4.04 ERA with 88 strikeouts, tying him for fourth most in the Texas League.
But Asher has been a bastion of durability, which isn’t all that surprising, and the 107 innings he has pitched to date for the RoughRiders tie him for fourth most in the TL and are just 26 1/3 short of equaling the career high of 133 1/3 frames he pitched last season with High-A Myrtle Beach, where he was 9-7 with a 2.90 ERA and 139 strikeouts, a total which not only led the Carolina League but was also tops in the entire Ranger organization.
However, heading into this season, the story with this Florida native would be whether or not he could effectively complement his solid fastball with a changeup. Well, Asher has done exactly that, so much so that he and Frisco pitching coach Jeff Andrews might even agree that his off-speed offering is now the second best pitch in his repertoire.
"He’ll argue with me but I think it’s his second best pitch now," Andrews said. "He was doing well with it last year and has just kind of brought it back this year. I think the way he’s expanded it, the way he’s expanded the use (has been great). It used to be fastball, sliders to righties. Now the changeup has been there. Each time out or each week he seems to kind of find a better way or a more efficient way to use it. It’s one of those pitches I would say that’s probably improved the most."
Asher, a big 6-foot-4 starter who is nicknamed Big Cat, currently has the seventh best WHIP in the TL at 1.168 but he agrees with his pitching coach, a guy who some who have worked with him have dubbed the "mad scientist" that a better changeup has been huge for him in 2014.
"Right now, as of recent, it’s been really good I feel like. But it’s hard to think at the start of the season it would have been my third or fourth best pitch. It’s come a long way," Asher said. "I would have to probably right now agree with him (Andrews) that right now it’s right there with how I’ve been throwing my fastball and hopefully I can keep doing it that way."
But it’s not like wanting most of his starters to have a changeup as their secondary pitch behind their fastball is anything new. That’s because as Andrews describes, that has recently become a key tenet of the pitching philosophy in the Ranger organization.
"That’s kind of an organization-wide thing," Andrews said. "It’s just the organizational thought process if we can get a fastball/changeup at least they’ll have something to fight with every day. At least they’ll have something to go with every day and their breaking ball doesn’t have to be swing-and-miss that day. If it is, then all the better."
Andrews has dubbed the group of pitchers he has worked with this season as one of the best groups of collective strike-throwers he has ever seen. And Asher definitely fits the bill in that regard, something that is often an asset for the young starter, but can conversely work against him in other situations.
"As a young pitcher coming through any level of baseball, you’re always taught to throw strikes. That’s basically all I was ever preached coming up, was throw strikes, fill it up and challenge guys. Sometimes I kind of fall into these things where I throw too many strikes and it ends up coming back to hurt me because guys can come up to the plate and go this guy’s going to throw me a strike, a hittable pitch at some point," Asher said.
Of course, as is the case with most pitchers at the Double-A level, wanting to put a pitch in a particular spot whether it’s in or out of the zone can often be two different things and this young starter who projects to be a three or a four at the big-league level is no different.
"That’s something I also have to work on too, is throwing strikes but throwing them where I want them to be. A called strike doesn’t have to be a strike," Asher said. "That’s the thing that we’ve also worked on, is being able to throw a pitch where I want it to be and it doesn’t have to be a strike as long as it’s executed the right way," Asher said.
Among his teammates this season have been Luke Jackson, who has since been promoted to Triple-A and is considered the Rangers’ No. 3 prospect as well as fellow starter Alex "Chi Chi" Gonzalez, currently Texas’ No. 5 prospect.
Asher is also considered a top-10 prospect in the organization but isn’t someone who has garnered as much attention as Jackson, Gonzalez or current Frisco teammate Joey Gallo, the Rangers’ No. 2 prospect, but he isn’t terribly preoccupied with such external praise.
"Yeah, don’t try to focus on that stuff, try not to pay attention to it the best you can and just play, play the game. It’s great playing with guys that push you and make you better like Chi Chi and Luke," he said. "And it’s fun to play with those guys because you push each other and you challenge each other and you try to make bets and stuff to see who can do this. It just makes it fun, a better experience. I try to go get guys out and see what happens."
But one thing about this young starter is that a big part of his outgoing demeanor means that he is never hesitant to give credit where credit is due. And when it comes to having a much improved changeup this year, he feels working with Andrews has been a big reason why that part of his arsenal has truly come around.
"I can’t say enough good things about him. I’ve had a blast with him. He’s Jeff Andrews. That’s for sure. There’s no one like him, but he’s very, very bright and he knows the game and he knows what he’s doing because he’s been doing it long enough," Asher said. "He’s seen pretty much everything there is to see. I’m all ears with him. I love listening to him talk. It’s been fun, it really has."
Of course, respect is a mutual thing and Andrews, who has been Frisco’s pitching coach since 2009, sees a lot to like in the young Floridian even if the two didn’t really know each other prior to this season.
"Well, the No. 1 thing (that has impressed me) I think is his demeanor. He seems to be open to information exchange, open to talking about pitching," Andrews said. "He’s got a pretty outgoing personality and not being with him before this year, everybody’s a little apprehensive when you start a player/coach relationship, but his openness and his desire to listen (have really impressed me)."