There is no one quite like Al Alburquerque. Master of Instagram, fashion icon, timepiece collector, and notorious kisser of baseballs. An enigma both as a personality and a pitcher, Alburquerque took a big step forward in 2014. He cut his walks substantially and thoroughly dominated right-handed hitters. Midst a bullpen mired in disaster late in the season, Alburquerque was putting up career-best numbers. If he can repeat that performance, Alburquerque may earn an expanded late-innings role with the Detroit Tigers in 2015.
Alburquerque got his start in the Chicago Cubs organization. The 6'0, 195-pound Dominican-born reliever was signed by the Cubs in 2006. Alburquerque immediately showed his strikeout ability in the low minors, but injury and an inability to refine his command made for slow progress through the Cubs' system. He was traded to the Colorado Rockies before the 2009 season, and spent two seasons with the Rockies' Double-A club, the Tulsa Drillers, before signing a free agent deal with the Tigers after the 2010 season.
The Tigers immediately added Alburquerque to their 40-man roster. He made his major league debut on April 15, 2011, pitching two scoreless innings in which the Tigers blew a 1-0 ninth inning lead, only to score seven runs in the 10th inning. He got the win as the Tigers pulled out an 8-4 victory over the Oakland Athletics. In retrospect, this seems a fitting beginning to Alburquerque's big league career.
The righthander compiled an outrageous strikeout rate just less than 14 per nine innings in 2011. Just as loud was a walk rate nearly double the league average. The freakish numbers, and the occasional slider to the backstop, made it difficult to consistently entrust Alburquerque with a standard single inning role. At times, former Tigers manager Jim Leyland instead used him as a fireman, calling him in with runners on-base to get a key strikeout. He was dominant in 43.1 innings, compiling a 1.87 ERA while striking out a whopping 67 batters to just 21 hits.
During the 2011 offseason, Alburquerque required a surgical screw to repair and stabilize a non-displaced stress fracture in his right elbow. The surgery, performed by Dr. James Andrews, was a complete success, but it took much of the 2012 season before Alburquerque was able to take the mound again. He returned to the Tigers late in the season, and over 13 1/3 innings he allowed just one earned run.
Alburquerque's most memorable moment as a Tiger came in Game 2 of the 2012 ALDS. With men on the corners and the score tied in the ninth inning, Alburquerque induced a ground ball back to the mound off the bat of Yoenis Cespedes. After fielding the ball he kissed it in appreciation and relief, before throwing Cespedes out at first base, drawing some ire from Athletics' players. He was credited with the win after Don Kelly's sacrifice fly won the game in the 10th inning.
Unfortunately, the 2013 was a step back. Alburquerque started the year with a sustained bout of wildness, and while he remained on the roster throughout the season, he never really got any traction going. As Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, and eventually Jose Veras held down the late-inning roles, Alburquerque was relegated back to mop-up duty -- occasionally being called in to escape a jam with runners on-base.
Alburquerque pitched somewhat better in the second half, but he also posted an ERA of 4.59 ERA -- although a FIP of 3.72 indicates he was unlucky to a degree. His main issue came from walking half as many batters as he struck out, coupled with a home run rate of 0.92 per nine innings pitched.
The big improvement in 2014 was that Alburquerque cut his walk rate nearly in half from the previous season, while maintaining a K rate of nearly 10 per nine innings. He ditched the four-seamer almost entirely, relying more and more on his 95 mph sinker as the year progressed. The move to the sinker seems to have brought a measure of control to his arsenal. It allowed him to trim the amount of sliders down below 60 percent in the second half of the season.
Alburquerque's slider has consistently generated whiff rates above 50 percent, and is one of the most formidable weapons in the game. It's actually not a slider that drops so substantially. It has too much velocity to generate big bending movement or sweep. Instead, it's the violence of its late break at the plate that makes it so difficult to square up, or even touch. It disappears long after a hitter has committed to his swing, resulting in a lot of awkward flailing. However, like most sliders, when he hangs one over the plate, it's liable to get clobbered.
Alburquerque will receive a salary of $1.725 million for the 2015 season. He has one option remaining, and a little less than four years of MLB service time accumulated.
Stats and Projections
The projection systems have a difficult task in predicting what Alburquerque's 2015 season will look like. They indicate a slight rise in his walk rate, which is fair based on his history. Likewise a K/9 around 10.0 can be expected. His flaw in 2014 was in giving up seven home runs, and he was fortunate in that they generally came without runners on-base.
His stellar 2.51 ERA could easily be much worse. Five of the seven home runs came against left-handed hitters, a weakness Alburquerque hadn't previously shown. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus may need to be careful about using him against American League Central Division sluggers like Brandon Moss, Adam LaRoche, and Michael Brantley with runners on-base. Like many relievers, how he's used will have an inordinate effect on Alburquerque's final numbers in 2015.
Alburquerque may always be something of an all-or-nothing proposition. At times he's appeared to lose track of both the count and the number of outs in an inning, and yet he's consistently handled tough spots pretty well. Generally, he'll be great, but on occasions when he isn't, the collapse may be total. However, if he continues his trends, those bad appearances should be rare. With the Tigers' bullpen seemingly up for grabs, perhaps this will be the year when Alburquerque is asked to handle the late innings with regularity.