To give you an idea, Al Alburquerque has now played in four major league seasons. He tossed roughly 43, 13, 49, and 57 innings in those four seasons and his walk rate was 15.9%, 15.1%, 15.5%, and 8.9%. See if you can spot the piece of data that doesn’t quite fit.
Throughout his career, Alburquerque has been one of those Dave Dombrowski arms with a tremendous amount of stuff and little idea where it’s going. The raw talent is off the charts but he’d go through stretches where he avoided the strike zone like the plague. That comes with the territory when you’re running strikeout rates north of 30% and contact rates that sometimes began with a five.
Alburquerque generated lots of swinging strikes and when you can do that, the walks aren’t so bad. Yet in 2014, he shifted his approach and allowed noticeably more contact (and fewer strikeouts), but walked a lot fewer batters along the way. If you can strike out 26% of batters and walk fewer than 9%, that’s a pretty good place to live. It won’t make you an elite reliever, but it will put you in position to add some real value to your club.
So the question is if we believe in Alburquerque’s new found command? Let’s dig in a little bit.
First, we’re only dealing with 236 batters faced, so it’s not a matter of if he’ll regress, it’s just a matter of how much. It’s very possible that he truly augmented his approach, but it’s also unlikely that he did so to the tune of six to seven true percentage points. If we look at some underlying numbers, we notice that he threw 47.9% of his pitches into the PITCHf/x strike zone last year, up two points from a year earlier.
We can also see that batters swung more often at his pitches, obviously decreasing the number of takes that could lead to walks, but they also made more contact, sending more balls into play. That could be dangerous if you’re trading a strikeout for a ball in play, but a walk for a ball in play is a trade you make every day.
So it seems like Alburquerque is really throwing something different at the hitters at first, but then you turn around and find out he’s throwing the lowest percentage of first pitch strikes in his career.
This got me wondering about what’s happening when he’s in three-ball counts. Let’s start with a slightly different baseline. Per Baseball-Savant’s PITCHf/x data (different than what’s cited above), Alburquerque threw 37% of his pitches in the zone in 2011-2013 and 41% in the zone in 2014. Those numbers are probably a tad low, but we’re working from the same data so pay attention to the comparisons.
In 2014, he hit the zone 47% of the time when he was in a three ball count. That’s a massive difference, and one that doesn't exist on the first pitch.
Now let’s look at first pitches only. From 2011-2013, 40% of his first pitches hit the zone per Savant. In 2014, it was 41%. Given all of the little flaws in the data, we’re comfortable calling that even. Now let’s consider those three ball counts, when a walk was on the line.
From 2011-2013, when Alburquerque was in a three ball count, he hit the zone 35% of the time. Sometimes the batter chased, but he rarely forced the issue when he was on the verge of issuing a walk. But in 2014, he hit the zone 47% of the time when he was in a three ball count. That’s a massive difference, and one that doesn't exist on the first pitch.
Maybe you can chalk this up to nothing, but it certainly appears credible. Alburquerque didn’t just develop better control over night, he started attacking the zone in situations where failing to do so was assuredly a walk. That’s not a bad gambit.
As with all things dealing with relievers, there’s a chance sample size is clouding the entire thing. But in this case, the chain of events seems substantial enough to put some weight behind a new Alburquerque. I’d be skeptical if he was all of a sudden throwing a ton more strikes or if he happened to lower his walk rate some other way, but the fact that the zone rate was so much higher when there were three balls, you buy it as a conscious and repeatable thing.
And the Tigers can use all the help they can get. There’s some talent in the pen but not much reliability. If Alburquerque can repeat his 2014 walk rate, he might be a solid mid to late inning option that will take some of the pressure off the bigger named guys. So often, bullpens succeed due to raw numbers and hopefully Alburquerque can be one brick in that edifice for the Tigers in 2015.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44