The Detroit Tigers announced that they would not tender contracts to relievers Al Alburquerque and Neftali Feliz on Wednesday. Both pitchers are now free agents, eligible to sign with any team, including the Tigers.
While ridding themselves of the underwhelming Feliz and his overwhelming $5.1 million projected salary was not a surprise, non-tendering Alburquerque was a bit of a shock. The 29-year-old Dominican righthander has been with the Tigers since 2011, and has accumulated 4.7 rWAR in five seasons. He has a 3.20 ERA with 276 strikeouts in 225 innings, and was only projected to earn $2.1 million in his third year of arbitration.
However, as the hot-takey headline suggests, there's a reason Alburquerque is now a free agent. Despite a 155 ERA+ in 2014 and solid stretches in 2015, Alburquerque is no longer the pitcher he was earlier in his Tigers career. He has sported an ERA above 4.00 in two of the past three seasons, his strikeout rate is declining, and... oh hell, just look at the table.
When Alburquerque was at his best, he was a slider-spinning demon who limited opponents to fewer than five hits per nine innings. His command was spotty at best -- he actually allowed more walks than hits from 2011 through 2013 -- but his gaudy strikeout totals (155 in 105 2/3 innings pitched during that stretch) more than made up for all the baserunners he allowed.
Over the past two seasons, things have changed. Alburquerque has allowed 109 hits in 119 1/3 innings since the start of 2014, or just over eight per nine innings. His walk rate decreased, but 2015 offered enough regression to indicate that his quantum leap in command in '14 was a mirage. Additionally, Alburquerque's strikeout rate significantly declined, dropping to just about a batter per inning. The worst part? He gave up 11 home runs in those two seasons after holding opponents to just five from 2011 to 2013.
Long story short, the once-unhittable Al Al has become more reliant on balls in play, and that hasn't worked out well.
This seems like more than a blip, too. Alburquerque's slider hasn't been quite as lethal in recent seasons. PitchFX data show that his slider has lost both horizonal and vertical movement since his early breakout in 2011.
When looking at these charts, remember that vertical movement should not be assessed by the actual number, but by its relative position on the graph (as it is relative to release point). Basically, for a slider, positive vertical movement = bad.
There's an explanation for this! Remember all those elbow issues Alburquerque had early in his career? It's possible that he has taken a bit off the slider in recent years in hopes of staying healthy. The upside is that his elbow is not string cheese, but the downside is that opponents are hitting his slider more than before.
Alburquerque's best pitch, while still effective, hasn't been as dominant as it once was, and he isn't able to sneak his fastball by enough hitters to compensate. Opponents aren't whiffing as often, and adding hits to the already worrisome walk totals. The result is a pitcher who isn't as effective as many still believe him to be, and who doesn't have the stuff to work out of his own jams anymore.
Of course, one could argue that $2 million is still a relatively cheap price to pay for a reliever that, above caveats aside, is still only a year removed from a very good season. However, the Tigers must see something in his profile that leads them to value that $2 million (and the roster spot that goes along with it) enough to not give it to Alburquerque.