Back in June, I wrote about how Matt Albers was enjoying a bounceback season after a rough 2018. Flash forward to today, Albers is still chugging along and has emerged as one of Craig Counsell’s more trusted relievers behind Josh Hader. Albers has made 51 appearances, third most among Milwaukee’s relief corps, and is sitting on a strong 88 ERA-. ERA estimators back that performance up, and they even believe that Albers has been a touch better than his results indicate. He has a 83 FIP-, and his 77.8 DRA- is a career-best. His hard contact rate has decreased even further since his our last check-in, now sitting at 31.6%, and his average exit velocity of 86.1 miles per hour ranks in the top 10% of qualified MLB hurlers. His barrel rate is also down to 4.4%. While he’s probably still best suited for a middle-relief role, the struggles in the bullpen, particularly the departure of Adrian Houser to the rotation and Freddy Peralta’s rocky stretch, have pushed Albers into more high-leverage opportunities, and he has responded by recording three saves.
I already explained what was driving Albers’ success this season. A return to health added some velocity on his sinker, and he improved his location of the pitch as well. He has also improved his slider, ramping up its usage and using it as his go-to offering for swings and misses. Two months later, those trends haven’t changed.
However, something I didn’t touch on was just how unique this kind of success is in baseball these days. In today’s game, most hitters are trying to avoid hitting the ball on the ground. Instead, they’re focused on lifting the baseball in the air, particularly punishing the low pitch. Furthermore, it’s become clear at this point that the baseball has been altered, leading to a spike in hard contact and baseballs flying over the fence.
What’s the best way for pitchers to counter this? Throw it hard, and throw it high. Patrick Brennan of Beyond the Box Score noted that former Blue Jays reliever Joe Biagini has essentially swapped out his sinker for a fastball since he was traded to the Astros.
I think the Astros intent with Joe Biagini is pretty clear pic.twitter.com/5MGs6axIW2— Patrick Brennan (@paintingcorner) August 13, 2019
In a piece published on Tuesday afternoon, Brennan would go on to explain just how ineffective the sinker has been this year.
To be fair, this problem with sinkers isn’t just catered to Joe Biagini and the Blue Jays. It’s almost league-wide. There have been 105 pitchers with at least 100 results on their sinker this season. Eighty-two of them have allowed an above-average xwOBA on the pitch. Their median-xwOBA is .370.
The takeaway here is that in today’s game, sinkers are highly ineffective offerings for the majority of pitchers. Here’s where Albers comes in. Take a look at the top ten most effective sinkers this season among pitchers who have generated at least 100 results with it.
Top Ten Most Effective Sinkers in 2019 (minimum 100 results)
|Pitcher||Opponent wOBA vs sinkers|
|Pitcher||Opponent wOBA vs sinkers|
There’s our middle relief stud at number two! And not only that, he’s one out of just six pitchers who have held opponents to a sub-.300 wOBA against their sinker. If we pivot to expected results based on quality of contact, Albers still ranks third with a .268 xwOBA. Among pitchers who have allowed 50 balls in play with their sinker, he has the fourth-lowest average exit velocity at 85.9 miles per hour.
With many hitters looking to punish the low ball, it’s a very fine line for most sinkerballers. Fortunately, Albers has been done a significantly better job of walking that line than he did last season. He has refined the skill of painting the edges with his sinking fastball. That newfound command has translated to a notable jump in his Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA) from just 0.21% last season to 1.37% this year.
Equally as important is the fact that he has found a secondary pitch that his sinker can play off of. By ramping up his slider usage and improving its movement, Albers now has two pitches that essentially move in opposite directions and at differing speeds.
In 2019, the prominent philosophy is to hit the ball in the air and punish the low ball, and the way to counter that is by attacking hitters up in the zone with velocity. However, Matt Albers has found a way to succeed in spite of these trends. Pitchers of Albers’ kind are a dying breed, and it’s impressive that he has been able to silence hitters with his sinker in a time where sinkers are typically hit hard. It’s no fluke either, as opponents simply haven’t been able to square it up. Not only has Albers’ sinker been effective, it’s been one of the best in baseball this season.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus.