Perhaps no other pitcher on the Tiger roster typifies what Tigers' President and GM Dave Dombrowski looks for in a pitcher, than Al Alburquerque. And perhaps no other pitcher demonstrates how erratic that search can be.
Al Al, as he is affectionately known by Tiger fans, is both the best strikeout pitcher and the wildest pitcher on the Tiger roster. Among pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched in 2013, only the Royals' Greg Holland posted a higher strikeout rate than Alburquerque's 12.86 per nine innings. And among the same group, Al Al had the highest walk rate -- a staggering 6.24 walks per nine innings pitched. That ratio easily out walks Joba Chamberlain's 5.57, which was second highest in the league.
The Tigers have seen the best and the worst of Alburqurque in his two partial seasons with Detroit. There is the dominating Al Al who finished off the 2013 season with nine straight scoreless appearances, allowing just one hit and three walks in nine innings. There is also the wild Al Al who gave up eleven runs across five appearances in July. That is the same wild Al Al who was sent back to Toledo to work on his control for six weeks earlier in the season.
If it were just a matter of walking hitters, Alburquerque could actually make a major league living. He is probably not going to walk four batters before getting three to strike out or ground out very often. Thirteen of the 25 earned runs that Alburquerque gave up in 2013 came in games where he served up at least one home run ball. Three of his five home runs allowed came during that stretch in July when he gave up multiple runs in three of five games.
Since it is pretty much a given that he is going to hand out free passes, Alburquerque has to keep the ball in the park. He should be able to do that, since he didn't allow a home run in the major leagues until July 2013, his third season. The first home run allowed in the majors came against his 102nd batter of the season, the 337th of his career, and then he served up three gopher balls and nine earned runs in four games.
Al Al features a slider that is as nasty as you will find anywhere, in any league. The PitchF/X data is very telling. He threw 557 sliders, allowing opponents just a .158 batting average. He threw 212 two-seamer fastballs, allowing an average of .311, and 91 four seam fastballs, yielding an average of .333. Despite two-thirds of his pitches being sliders, he gave up just one of the five homers on a slide-piece.
What's in a name?
Alburquerque spells his name the same as the Spanish town, from whence the Duke came. But the largest city in New Mexico is spelled without that first "r". In case you didn't know.
Key to success
While it's fun to watch him rack up strikeouts, Alburquerque is a risky option in the late innings with a narrow lead, unless the Tigers can be assured that he will keep the ball in the yard. If he does that, the free passes will most often result in LOBsters, rather than blown leads.
Outlook for 2014
It appears that the Tigers favor Rondon and Chamberlain for the primary set up roles heading into the season, but Alburquerque's stuff is so nasty that he can pitch with any of them if he finds his groove. He does have one option left, but he has a job in the bullpen barring a major implosion this spring, and probably has first crack at a set up role if one becomes available.