Matt Albers surprised a lot people last season by becoming an important part of the Boston Red Sox bullpen. The heavy set righty pitched 64 innings for the Red Sox last year and had his best season to date judging by his peripherals. He struck out far more per nine than he had in other season, with an excellent 9.46 K/9 while his walks remained high, at 4.31 BB/9, he still produced a very solid 4.00 FIP and an even better 3.82 xFIP. The improved peripherals did not end in stellar results, however, as his ERA was 4.73, better than his 5.09 career mark, but still 11% worse than league average. Thanks mostly to a .309 BABIP and a slightly higher than normal home run rate.
If Albers is going to earn new manager Bobby Valentine’s trust and see the same amount of action this season he will need to maintain the kind of strike out ability he showed last year. In the past Valentine has tolerated walk rates like Albers when the strike outs are there, but the 29 year old reliever has not shown that ability consistently through out his career.
Matt Albers throws three pitches, a four-seamer which can also be classified as a sinker at times, a slurvy slider and a curve, which may in fact simply be a slower version of his slider.
The four seamer is Albers main pitch. He throws it around 65% of the time and its sinking action is largely responsible for his ability to get ground balls so consistently. He has induced 50% ground balls in over his career. The pitch average 92-93 mph. He likes to throw low in zone and typically targets the catcher’s left side area a good deal, pitching away to lefties and in to righties with his fastball. Last season, however, he stayed away from righties a good deal more and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues.
His off-speed pitches are hard to separate from each other. Both his slider and his curve feature more horizontal action than vertical, both breaking 2-6 inches across the plate towards the catcher’s right hand side. The only thing that really separates the two pitches is velocity, leading me to believe that Albers actually just uses a hard and a slow slider, throwing both pitches with the same grip and arm action.
The hard slider comes in at 85-86 mph and the slow version come in between 79-82. In the past, the slower version was his preferred one, but last season he began favoring the hard slider, throwing it 25% of the time. Again, given his dramatically improved strike out rate, it will be interesting to see if Albers favors this version again in 2012 and if the result is continued whiffs. Both versions have batters missing the ball around 10% of the time, so it is hard to tell just how much impact this new strategy has had on Albers strikeouts. Both variations on the pitch get thrown away from batters on both sides of the plate, making it a back door slider/curve against lefties most of the time.
It is easy to breeze over guys like Matt Albers when looking at a team’s bullpen and considering how it will perform. Still, last seasons he throw nearly the same number of innings as closer Jonathan Papelbon. While Albers never got any of the save opportunities, he was a key figure in the middle innings. Overlooked as his contribution might be, it was still important last season and it will still be important in 2012.