To set the stage, it’s important to remember what Al Alburquerque did for the Tigers last season. He became frequently deployed as a “bridge” reliever – that is, he’d be used to bridge the gap between the starting pitchers and the late inning relievers. About 60% of his workload came in the seventh and eighth innings. And he was effective doing so – he posted a 2.51 ERA, struck out nearly ten batters per nine, and while of course was better against right-handers with his famed splitter, could get lefties out as well (9.9 K/9, .321 wOBA).
He wasn’t dominating, his ERA was about a run lower than his FIP/xFIP, and he wasn’t a candidate for a more advanced role. But he was good at what he did.
And for a Tigers bullpen that was full of question marks, it was believed that Alburquerque would not be one of them. But when you take a look at his stat line so far this season, something is clearly off.
This isn’t just a case of some early season bad luck. Alburquerque in less than nine innings has essentially cost the Tigers half of a win. His bloated ERA is actually lower than his FIP, he’s walking nearly a batter per inning and striking out about half that many, and he’s not been BAbip’d to death.
The Tigers appear to know something is up, as their usage of him lately has been sporadic. He’s pitched just once in May, and was not very effective against the four batters he faced. There’s been mention of a sinus infection that could be impacting his vision. Does that explanation line up with his performance?
Well, poor vision could certainly explain the walks, right? If you can’t see where you’re throwing, you’d have a tough time hitting the zone. But, the percentage of pitches that Alburquerque has thrown in the strike zone is virtually identical to 2014 – 44.8% in 2015, compared to 44.9% in 2014.
Perhaps he’s grooving pitches – he can get them in the zone, but he’s putting them right down the middle and hitters are teeing off? Well, when you look at his zone profile between 2014 and 2015, it doesn’t appear that’s the case, either.
2014 Zone Profile:
2015 Zone Profile:
He’s keeping the ball in the zone, and while sample size impacts the quadrant a bit right now, it’s relatively consistent year to year.
What about velocity? That would definitely impact a pitcher’s effectiveness, though that wouldn’t seem like it would be tied to vision problems from a sinus infection.
The velocity data doesn’t look good. There’s clear drop off in 2015:
After having his fastball/sinker consistently above 94 MPH, and his slider around 86 MPH, there’s a pretty big drop off to start 2015, with both pitches down about two MPH. Could a sinus infection be impacting his velocity that much? It’s plausible, but that would seem to indicate that Alburquerque is really ill, and the sinus infection isn’t just impacting his vision, but is negatively impacting the strength in his body. If that were the case, it seems like he’d be better off on the DL.
As noted and anyone that has watched him pitch knows, Alburquerque relies heavily on his trademark slider. In many ways, he’s been over-reliant on it. From 2012 through 2014, it was basically a 60/40 mix, with his slider being the 60+% pitch. That’s an unusual and not recommended mix, but it’s what worked for him.
Instead this year, we’ve seen it almost reversed, with his slider being used about 46% of the time, and the fastball the rest. What could cause him to stop using his go-to pitch one out of five times?
2014/2015 Slider Movement:
When you look at the pitch’s movement over the same time period (2014 and 2015, by month), the pitch has changed. The pitched used to have about twice as much vertical movement as horizontal – that bubble nearest the vertical axis and to the right is where he’s at now though – with the pitch functioning in reverse – twice as much horizontal movement as vertical. We’re only talking about a couple of inches here, but that shift is indicating the pitch is flattening out, turning more than diving.
Now, the obvious caveat applies that I’m not a doctor, nor have I worked closely with Alburquerque to understand his illness, or what might be going wrong. But this analysis indicates that something more is at play here.
He’s ineffective on the whole – he’s suddenly using his fastball a lot more despite the fact that it has lost some velocity, his slider has flattened and is resulting in him hurting the club. The slider might need some tweaking to regain its effectiveness, and a mechanical change could address that. And that could be tied to why he’s not using it as much. But the sudden velocity drop is more of a mystery, and it’s hard to know what the Tigers can do about that part. But they’re going to need to do something, because right now, they’re carrying a reliever that can’t help them win.