The Brewers were a bit passive in the hot reliever market early on in the winter. They neglected to sign any of the top available setup men as those arms were flying off the board in November and December, but have gotten more involved in what’s left over of the market since the calendar has turned over to 2018. They inked veteran lefty Boone Logan earlier this month and yesterday announced the signing of Matt Albers to a two-year contract.
Albers, who turned 35 earlier this month, was originally selected by the Houston Astros way back in the 23rd round of the 2001 MLB Draft. He came up through the minor leagues as a starter and was still pitching in the rotation when he debuted with Houston in 2006. He has spent time in the big leagues in each of the last 12 seasons since then, bouncing from Houston to Baltimore, then to Boston, then Arizona, a stint in Cleveland, back to Houston, north to the White Sox, then Washington, and now finally Milwaukee. Albers converted to full-time relief by 2009 and over the course of his career has appeared in 515 games, tossing 665.0 innings with a 4.13 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, and a 52% ground ball rate.
While his career 104 ERA+ is certainly respectable, Albers took his game to another level in 2012 and has provided generally excellent run prevention in the six seasons since then. That includes some missed time in 2014 with a shoulder issue, but in that six-year span Albers has seen action in 278 games, working 283.0 innings with a 2.89 ERA. He slumped to a 6.31 mark in 2016 with the White Sox during one of the worst seasons of his career, but bounced back with an excellent campaign for the Nationals last year. Albers has posted an ERA of 3.14 or lower in five of the last six years, and a DRA- of 86 or better five times in the last six seasons, as well.
Albers' work with the Nationals last season at age 34 was arguably the best of his career. He signed a minor league deal prior to the season but turned into a major bullpen contributor, getting tabbed in 61 games and tossing 63.0 innings with a sparkling 1.62 ERA. He struck out 27% of the batters he faced, the highest rate of his career, fanning 63 batters in total. He sliced two points off his walk rate from his career average and allowed a mere .165 batting average against while compiling a 0.852 WHIP. His trademark sinker saw a boost in velocity and helped him generate a 51% ground ball rate. While the metrics don’t quite support his otherworldly ERA total, Deserved Run Average viewed his work last season as 29% better than league average (71 DRA-). Thanks to a few adjustments to the way he attacks batters, Albers was able to earn the first multi-year contract guarantee of his career.
As mentioned, Albers saw a rebound in his velocity last season, with his average sinker jumping from 92.5 MPH in 2016 to 93.5 MPH in 2017. That’s right in line with his career average (93.3 MPH) and the hardest he’s thrown since shoulder tendinitis limited him to eight appearances in 2014. He also began to vary greatly the location of the pitch he’s thrown 65.8% of the time in his career. The first graphic shown is Albers’ sinker location from 2007-2016:
And now, his sinker heat map from 2017:
Albers quit pigeonholing his sinker to his arm-side of the zone and in 2017 was more willing to work glove-side and even elevate the offering on occasion. Batters connected for only a .155 average with an .084 ISO against the pitch last season, and they whiffed at 19.3% of the sinkers they offered at.
Albers also more than doubled the usage of his slider in 2017, utilizing it nearly 27% of the time while shelving his curveball and slicing his changeup usage. His hard slider averaged 87.1 MPH last season and featured plus vertical break, generating whiffs on almost 32% of swings with just a .188 batting average against. He reserved his changeup solely for when he needed to neutralize a southpaw (seriously, according to Brooks he threw zero changes to right-handed hitters), and of the 43 cambios he threw, not a single one of wound up going for a hit.
Though Albers fanned 9.3 batter per nine innings last season, there’s reason to believe he won’t generate quite as many whiffs going forward. His swinging strike rate was 8.7% last season, and although that was well above his career average, it fell a fair sight shy of the league average of 10.5%. But even if his K-rate does fall next season, Albers should still be able to find plenty of success. He’s been an expert on keeping the ball on the ground throughout his career and also has a long track record of limiting hard contact. Batters have registered only a 27.2% hard hit rate against Albers during his time in the MLB, and last season only two qualified relievers allowed a rate of hard contact lower than Albers’ 22.2%. That skill has helped him maintain a low .289 BABIP allowed as a big leaguer.
We shouldn’t expect Albers to be able to post another sub-2.00 ERA in 2018, but he certainly looks like he should be a useful veteran addition to the bullpen. He basically replaces Jared Hughes as the sinker/slider ground ball specialist and should come with quite a bit more upside than Hughes offered. For the reasonable sum of $5 mil total (and some possible incentives) over the next two seasons, Matt Albers should help provide some certainty and raise the floor of the middle relief corps. And if he’s able to maintain and build on the adjustments he made in 2017, he could work his way into the high-leverage mix for manager Craig Counsell.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball