In the first game of the 2013 ALCS, Tigers pitchers combined to strike out 17 batters while walking 6, making it a perfect Al Alburquerque of baseball games. That's our Al-Al: lots of strikeouts, and whoa, baby, let's tone down the walks a bit, ok? But he can't, you see, because that's what he does. He's the living, breathing definition of "effectively wild." He throws a nasty fastball in the mid-to-high 90's, and he mixes that with a nasty slider that typically sits in the mid-80's. When he can locate those pitches, he's a snarling demon of an opponent who feasts on swings-and-misses, but when he can't hit his spots, he's a one-man goat rodeo who will probably walk the bases loaded, throw six wild pitches, and then balk in the winning run.
The trouble is that you just never know which version of Al-Al you're going to get on any given day. With any consistency, he could easily be the most deadly weapon available out of the bullpen.
Unfortunately, in most measurable categories, 2015 was one of Alburquerque's worst seasons yet. He posted a 1.548 WHIP, the highest of his career, while his K/9 settled at 8.4, the lowest of his career. He averages two strikeouts for every walk, and while 2014 saw him push that ratio up to a career-high 3-to-1, in 2015 it sank to 1.8-to-1. That explains part of his unimpressive WHIP total, but it's not the entire picture, because his BB/9 for the season was only 4.8 -- right around his career average of five.
The extra base runners came as the result of an unusually high rate of batter success in 2015. "Average Al" is usually quite stingy about giving up base hits, and opponents have posted a career slashline of .213/.321/.304 against him. In 2015, that slashline jumped to .269/.359/.372, with the bulk of his troubles coming against right-handed batters -- also very untypical for Al-Al. He normally punishes righties and has marginally more trouble with lefties, and yet the opposite was true this year:
It's probably just an anomaly, but that's part of the problem, isn't it? With Al-Al, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what "normal" is. The elevated batting totals are somewhat explainable by the fact that his line drive rate shot up to 23.9 percent this year, up from 19.5 percent last year. His ground ball rate also increased from 45 percent in 2014 to 48.3 percent in 2015, which is a good thing, but with a slightly elevated BABIP of .337, combined with that higher line drive rate, more batted balls were going for hits this season.
When he was on, he was unhittable. But those outings were few and far between, especially in the first half of the year. When he left the ball up in the strike zone, the damage done was difficult to watch and Alburquerque found ways to defensively throw away any chance of a good outing -- or he'd make it worse. Towards the end he had some more stable appearances and the destructive nature died down, but for most of the year Alburquerque's season was a disappointment.
Expectations for 2016
It's hard to say what 2016 holds for Alburquerque, just as it's hard to say what any given outing will look like when he's pitching. You bring him into the game, preferably with no runners on base (stop with the wild pitches already!), and hope you get "good Al" that day. On the days that he does find himself firmly in the zone, striking out batters with that wicked slider, I would like to see Brad Ausmus be more willing to take advantage of the moment and ride that "hot hand" for more than an inning at a time.
The trouble is that there are times when his pitch location looks like this:
A few high fastballs here, a few sliders in the dirt there, some general wildness on the edges of the zone, and suddenly you've got a situation on your hands where you h-- wait a second. Is that ... ?
Al, you idiot.
Well, there's your problem right there. Here's to a more consistent Alburquerque in 2016.