Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
In golfing parlance, Detroit Tiger right hand reliever Al Alburquerque is a Gorilla. The Big Kahuna. A Big Bopper. A high strikeout pitcher who combines a sizzling 95 mph fastball with one of the the best sliders in baseball, he is clearly long off the tee, so to speak, like 350 yards or so. The question is, though, can he hit it in the fairway?
Or, to revert to baseball terminology, can he get the darn thing over the plate?
A 27 year-old native of the Dominican Republic, Alburquerque stands six feet tall and weighs 195 pounds. He originally signed with the Chicago Cubs’ organization in 2006 and the Tigers picked him up as a free agent in November, 2010. He made his major league debut in April, 2011, and appeared in 41 games that year. In that offseason he was diagnosed with a right elbow problem and did not pitch again for Detroit until September, 2012, appearing in only eight regular season games that year. In 2013 he made 53 appearances.
Let’s take a look at Al Alburquerque’s major league statistics, which he’s accumulated in his three years as a Detroit Tiger:
As the numbers indicate, there’s no questioning Alburquerque’s stuff. He sports an electric fastball that averages 94-95 mph, which he throws alternately as a four-seamer and a sinker. His marquee pitch, though, is a world-class slider, which averages 86 mph. This offering is so effective he uses it 65% of the time, which he steps up to 75% with two strikes on a hitter. It’s obviously his “whiff” pitch of choice.
With just two options, Alburquerque, known as “Al Al” for obvious reasons, is not out to dazzle the hitter with his array of pitches. He’s going to throw the slider at you. It’s your job to find it. Not many do.
Along with the great stuff, though, comes a common problem–a lack of control. Alburquerque boasts an incredibly high K/9 rate of 13.2 for his Tiger career. The flip side of that, however, is a BB/9 ratio of 6.0. No matter how impressively a pitcher is dealing, he will eventually get nicked by major league hitters with a walk rate of that magnitude.
In 2011 and 2012, his first two years as a Tiger, Alburquerque did not allow a home run. Last year, though, he gave up five dingers in 49 innings. His WHIP, which had been a more than respectable 1.15 and 1.05 in his first two years, also rose to 1.49. This is a disturbing trend and suggests with greater exposure to Alburquerque hitters may be learning to lay off many of his pitches outside the strike zone.
It is thus incumbent upon Alburquerque in 2014 to make an adjustment of his own if he wants to ascend to the next level. Simply stated, he needs to walk fewer hitters.
Which is exactly what pitching coach Jeff Jones seemed to have in mind in mid-January when he suggested Alburquerque rely less on his top-drawer slider and throw his fastball more. Not only is the fastball less stressful on the arm, it is generally easier to control. In Alburquerque’s case, though, the opposite often seems to be true. When he can’t find the plate, his four-seamer is frequently the culprit, and in turn he has to lean even more heavily on his slider as a get-me-over pitch.
So it sounds like Alburquerque and Jones have some work to do in Lakeland starting in a week or so.
Maybe they can first get re-acquainted in a casual setting, say by having a friendly round of golf.
If they do, let’s hope that on the first tee, instead of using the driver to “grip it and rip it” 300+ yards into the swamp where the gators lurk, Alburquerque thinks twice and selects the three wood.
And proceeds to hit it right down the middle.