Even the most dominating stuff won’t mean a whole lot if a pitcher doesn’t know where to put it, and few in MLB last season embodied that bit of baseball wisdom more aptly that Detroit Tigers reliever Al Alburquerque.
Except in his case, it’s not even totally true. While the right-hander did post a career-high 6.24 BB/9 that should just about set off alarm bells anytime he even steps near the mound, the fact is that his 4.59 ERA over 49 innings in 2013 is the result of a little more than just the base-on balls.
After all, the 27-year-old has always walked a ton of batters before, and it’s not like he has been unsuccessful. One only has to look at his 1.3 fWAR 2011 MLB debut as an example: he posted an 1.87/1.15 ERA/WHIP over 43.1 innings despite an obscene 6.02 BB/9, an illustration of what a 13.92 K/9 and .139 BAA can do to mask a lack of control.
In fact, it was more of the same story in his injury-shortened 2012 as he posted an even lower .133 BAA in 13.1 innings of work. In comparison, fellow fastball/slider reliever Aroldis Chapman‘s lowest single-season BAA was .141, just in case there were any doubts over Alburquerque’s stuff.
So what went wrong in 2013? Well, a 0.92 HR/9 is linked to his poor numbers, considering that it was a jump from a whopping 0.00.
Yes, the fireballer didn’t give up a home run in the bigs until 2013, an achievement that’s still remarkable despite the small sample size of his body of work. Still, that’s just a symptom and not the cause, and it’s reflected in his peripherals. He posted a career-low 1.18 GB/FB ratio, with a significant 25.4 percent line drive rate (13.6 and 11.1 in 2011 and 2012 respectively), leading to a career-high .312 BABIP and still-good .212 BAA.
Keep in mind that his problem in 2013 weren’t totally the fault of those changes — it’s more of the case that combined with his walk rate putting him on a tightrope, even incremental changes can tip him over the edge.
To bounce back in 2014, the righty must regain trust and command of his two-seamer, which was a pitch that was below average for a first time in 2013 at 1.7 wFT with a .927 OPSA. His slider is still doing just fine as an out pitch (7.9 wSL), but a career-high 63.3 percent usage rate (compared to 52.4 in 2011) is pushing it, especially when he’s not setting it up thanks to his fastball being wild (and up in the zone when it’s not).
How much of this change in the mix had to do with the shoulder surgery he had in 2012 is fairly uncertain, though it is worth mentioning that his two-seamer’s velocity dropped from a 95.9 mph average from 2011 to 93.9 in 2013, while he’s throwing his slider harder (at 86.3 mph in 2013 vs. 85.9 in 2011). The reduced speed separation between the pitches could have definitely played an important role in him getting hammered, especially if he wasn’t throwing as hard.
This double-edged sword is perhaps the biggest thing going against him in 2014. The negative effects of being overly reliant on sliders have been well discussed in baseball circles, and if Alburquerque is to maintain his health and the oomph on his fastball, it’s likely that he’ll have to lay off the breaking pitch a bit.
Of course, that would mean having to throw the less-than-reliable fastball more, and it’s not like he can just blow the pitch by folks if the velocity is continually decreasing. There are no easy solutions, but if he can’t believe that he can put the fastball where he wants (ie. down in the zone) and beat guys with it, things are definitely going to get worse and may never be better.
Then again, he did improve his walk rate from an untenable 8.14 BB/9 (24.1 IP, .247 BAA) to a much more manageable 4.38 BB/9 (24.2 IP, .172 BAA), so it’s not like the Tigers have a good reason to be giving up on him just yet, you know?