Al Alburquerque on Pace for Historic Season


The Tigers bullpen has been pretty good of late. Part of that, as far as I can tell, is due to the removal of both Brad Thomas and Ryan Perry. In their stead, newcomers David Purcey and Charlie Furbush have both been outstanding. Part of that is that Joaquin Benoit has re-discovered his changeup.

Last night showed the biggest area of concern for the Tigers, however.

When Rick Porcello cruised into the seventh with a 4-0 lead, things looked great fro Detroit. But after a two run homer by Drew Butera of all people and then a bunt single, Porcello was pulled with two out in the inning. Left hander Daniel Schlereth was summoned to face Justin Morneau, which was the obvious move after Jim Leyland left his starter out there to face Morneau the night before, only to watch as Morneau gave the Twins a lead with a two-run bomb.

Schlereth is probably on shaky ground as far as his roster spot is concerned right now, with both Furbush and Purcey pitching well. Having three southpaws in the ‘pen is probably one too many and when an extra right hander is needed, Schlereth is probably the odd man out. Last night didn’t do anything to improve his chances as he drilled Morneau with his first (and only) pitch of the game. Back to the bullpen went Leyland to bring on Al Alburquerque.

Alburquerque can get wild, especially with his fastball, and when veteran hitters choose not to swing at that nasty slider, he can get himself in trouble. Michael Cuddyer laid off the slider and drew a walk to load the bags, but fortunately for the Tigers, Jim Thome was no longer in the lineup, having been replaced by Trevor Plouffe. Plouffe’s youth worked against him and he couldn’t resist taking wild hacks at the slider, but Alburquerque surprised him with a fastball at the knees to rack up the third strike and end the inning.

During his outing, Rod and Mario discussed how as many as a dozen clubs were interested in signing Alburquerque this winter. When the Tigers signed him to a major league deal in December, the reaction by most fans was “Who the heck is this guy and why are they giving him a spot on the 40-man roster?” Alburquerque had never thrown a pitch above Double-A, after all, and 40-man spots are precious in the offseason.

But Dave Dombrowski defended the signing by saying that if they hadn’t given him the major league deal, they wouldn’t have gotten the right hander. It’s easy to see the logic now. There are plenty of moves that Dombrowski can (and should) be lauded for, but having the insight to give Alburquerque the big league contract when it might have meant not having roster space to sign another player was a stroke of genius.

Alburquerque has allowed only eight hits in 17.2 innings this year. He is a bit wild, as he has surrendered 12 walks and a hit batter, but those numbers are largely mitigated by his 31 strikeouts. That 15.8 per nine innings. We all recall fondly the 2006 season and how Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya showed up with their blazing fastballs that year. Zumaya that season wasn’t quite as wild as Alburquerque has been, but even at 103 mph, he wasn’t nearly as strikeout dominant, either. Zoom fanned 97 batters in 83 innings as a rookie or 10.5 per nine innings (the best mark of his career). Alburquerque is currently averaging more than five more K’s per nine that Zumaya did.

As a matter of fact, in the history of the game (according to fangraphs), only one pitcher has ever gone a full season (minimum 30 IP) with more than 15 strikeouts per nine and that was Chicago’s Carlos Marmol last year (15.99/9). Alburquerque is still better than 12 IP shy of meeting those criteria, but it gives you an idea of exactly how dominant he has been. If nothing else, so long as he maintains something close to his current pace, Al Al will set the American League record for highest single-season strikeout rate currently held (surprisingly) by Dan Plesac, who fanned 13.5 per nine for Toronto in 2001 over 45.1 innings.

My wife asked me during one of those “Who’s Your Tiger?” commercials recently who mine was. After rattling off a few name, I settled on Zumaya because of his dominance on the mound. It’s quickly becoming Alburquerque. Now if they would just give him a better number so I could buy a jersey without looking more like an offensive lineman than I already do.