Things quickly went south last season for Matt Albers when he hit the injured list with an ailing right shoulder. In just a few weeks, he went from being one of Craig Counsell’s most trusted relievers to being borderline unpitchable. Albers posted a sterling 1.08 ERA through his first 25 innings of the season, but he finished the year with a putrid 7.34 mark. He saw virtually no action on the mound over the final month of the season, appearing in just two games.
With a full offseason to get completely healthy, the Brewers guaranteed Albers a spot on the Opening Day roster despite his struggles down the stretch last season. The decision has paid off, as the veteran right-hander has pitched to a 3.81 ERA over 26 innings while stepping in buckets of sassy along the way.
MATT ALBERS IS FIRED UP pic.twitter.com/8CvYzsf4ak— FOX Sports Wisconsin (@fswisconsin) June 2, 2019
Albers’ ERA, while solid, doesn’t necessarily jump off the page. However, there is reason to believe that he’s been a little unlucky at times. In Atlanta, Albers allowed just one base runner over one inning, but Alex Claudio let that runner score. In Philadelphia, he was charged with an earned run that never would have reached base had it not been for a dropped third strike.
Even without the what-ifs, a look at some of Albers’ underlying metrics paints an even rosier picture than his actual run-prevention does. He carries a 3.65 FIP, and Deserved Run Average is particularly bullish on him. He has a career-best 3.22 DRA, which is 33% better than league average. He’s allowing less contact, posting a 26.6% strikeout rate, the second-best of his career. The Statcast metrics believe that he’s legit. Opponents have managed just a .282 wOBA against him, and a .278 xwOBA shows that it’s no fluke. His hard-hit rate has only dropped two percentage points from last season, but that’s more impressive once you consider that the league-wide hard-hit rate has increased by two percentage points this season. Furthermore, Albers has seen his barrel rate improve from 9% to 5.8%, and his ground ball rate has increased to 52.2%.
What’s fueling Albers’ resurgence? First of all, he’s throwing harder, which would indicate that he’s fully healthy. Last season, Albers’ sinker averaged 91.5 miles per hour. This season, it’s up to 92.2 miles per hour. He touched 94 on the gun nine times a year ago; this year, he’s hit it 18 times despite throwing approximately 250 fewer pitches. That extra bit of speed on his sinker has helped Albers generate more swings and misses. The pitch has a 19.3% whiff rate this season compared to 14.4% last year.
Perhaps more importantly, Albers has improved his control of his sinker.
Last season, Albers had a tendency to let his sinker leak over the heart of the plate, and when he tried to hit the edge of the zone, too often he would miss inside. This season, he’s pounding that low-and-inside edge of the zone more consistently. Even when he does make a mistake, having that extra tick of velocity can help prevent him from getting punished as badly.
Albers has also made some adjustments to his pitch selection. In spite of his struggles last season, one pitch that was effective for him was his slider. Opposing hitters managed just a .267 wOBA against it. This season, Albers has cut down on his four-seam fastball usage in favor of throwing more sliders.
The breaking ball, which he now throws 34.3% of the time, has limited opponents to a .283 wOBA. The batted ball numbers suggest than he may have even encountered some bad luck with the pitch. Its .255 xwOBA is roughly 30 points lower than the actual results. Hitters haven’t been able to square it up, making hard contact just 27.8% of the time. Even more impressively, Albers has yet to allow a single barrel against his slider. After seeking advice from Jhoulys Chacin and changing his grip, his slider has gained roughly seven inches of drop, marking the first time in Albers’ career that his breaking ball has had above-average movement.
Finally healthy, Albers has improved his command and made some adjustments to transform himself back into a quality bullpen arm. He hasn’t been elite by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s been a consistent source of solid innings in middle relief. Given how heavily the Brewers lean on their bullpen, having an effective Matt Albers is highly valuable to the team, even if he doesn’t get much fanfare for his work. In fact, Albers has been more effective than several of the relievers who snagged some of the larger contracts of this past offseason, including Jeurys Familia, Andrew Miller, Joe Kelly, and David Robertson. He’s pitched significantly better than most fans expected him to, and it’s time to give him some credit.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus, updated as of June 7.