Al Alburquerque took a big step forward in 2014. Always an elite strikeout artist since his Tigers' debut in 2011, Alburquerque finally got the walks under control to match and proceeded to post the most consistent season of his career. But for those who thought this signified a sustainable breakthrough, the opening month of the 2015 season was sobering.
For most of April, Alburquerque's average velocity was down a few miles an hour on both his two-seam fastball and the slider he's made his name with. Even more worrisome was the lack of bite on that slider. The pitch that once functioned like a medieval torture device to hitters on both sides of the plate was instead a slow tumbling, easily read pitch that was fooling no one. And worse, his control looked every bit as bad as the pitches themselves. His walk rate skyrocketed to 7.88 per nine innings, and the once dependable generator of whiffs in the bullpen scuffled to a miserable 5.63 strikeout rate. 2014's superb 2.51 ERA looked like a complete fluke, and worse, his diminished velocity seemed like a harbinger of an injury in the making.
And yet, nothing happened. Alburquerque continued to pitch poorly, but there were no indications of injury issues. In May his results improved substantially as Brad Ausmus used him sparingly and not at all in high leverage situations, giving the right-hander room to work out his issues. Still, his arsenal appeared little improved and a trip to Toledo seemed likely. Finally, during a homestand against the Cardinals in mid-May, Alburquerque and Tigers' pitching coach Jeff Jones made an adjustment to his leg kick, and the results were immediate. The sharp, late break on his slider returned, and his two-seam fastball was suddenly back under control and moving well.
In 10-2/3 innings of work since, Alburquerque has allowed just one earned run, while striking out 13 batters to three walks.
Alburquerque's May numbers look better than those he posted in 2014. The change in his leg kick has him staying on top of the ball consistently, and his command, velocity and movement have all rapidly trended in a positive direction as a result. His customary high strikeout rate has returned, and the substantial improvement in walk rate he managed last season has come back with it.
This is of course, only a small sample, just one month of work for a reliever. But the fact that the turnaround was so dramatic, and that his strikeout-to-walk rate in May is right in line with his work last year, gives cause to expect this to continue and for Alburquerque to start protecting leads going forward ... with a few caveats.
First, Alburquerque's April struggles mean that he's been used almost exclusively in low leverage situations. With his recent success and the struggles of Angel Nesbitt, that should change, and soon. We'll have a much more compelling tale should Ausmus choose to start giving Alburquerque those tougher situations. But throughout his career, Alburquerque has handled high leverage situations brilliantly. He's allowed just a .515 OPS and .226 wOBA in high leverage situations over his full career. There is no reason for him not to be called on to protect a lead as long as he continues to pitch this well.
The other factor with Alburquerque is his recent tendency to give up an elevated amount of home runs, particularly to left-handed batters. While a dialed in Alburquerque handles left-handers just about as well as right-handers in terms of average, strikeouts and walks, when left-handers connect on him, he'll a little more vulnerable to the long ball than is preferable. All three home runs he's allowed this year were to left-handed hitters, though it should be noted that all three came in April when he was struggling regardless of the type of hitter. Similar issues plagued Alburquerque a bit last year, and Ausmus should do what he can to avoid having him face power hitters from the left side in tight games.
It may seem a minor concern with the Tigers' mired in the worst slump in recent memory, but as the Tigers turn things around it will be important to have Alburquerque pitching well to defend leads. And if they don't turn things around...well, Alburquerque is eligible for arbitration two more seasons, and his future with the Tigers will no doubt rest on his performance over the final two-thirds of the season. If he can continue to be this effective, he may find himself a key part of the Tigers' bullpen for several more years to come.