I’m a sucker for great names in baseball. It’s why I’m glad to see Coco Crisp putting together what looks to be a productive year in Oakland, and so disappointed at the sudden end of the Milton Bradley saga. Fortunately, Bradley’s place in my heart has been filled by a rookie out in Detroit with a name that’s equally fantastic, if not more so. The reason he’s worth writing a blog about: his excellent name has some excellent numbers to go with it, at least thus far.
Al Alburquerque (say that ten times fast), a 24-year-old righty who’s bounced around quite a bit in his 5-year professional career, has found a home in Detroit’s bullpen. A native Dominican, Alburquerque signed with the Cubs at age 17, progressing through the club’s minor league system despite inflated ERAs due to some impressive stuff. He produced double-digit strikeout rates in rookie ball and Low-A, but struggled with control as he maintained high walk rates throughout his minor league career.
As a 23-year-old in High-A in 2009, Alburquerque dropped his walk rate slightly (although his 3.6 BB/9 still wasn’t stellar, especially considering the less discerning hitters at that level), and put up an impressive 11.4 K/9 over the first half of the season. The Rockies, likely enticed by Alburquerque’s sky-high K rate, sent Jeff Baker to the Cubs to acquire him and immediately assigned Alburquerque to Double-A. Over the next year, his numbers declined slightly, as his walk rate rose while his K rate dropped to a much less impressive 8.4/9. At the end of the 2010 season, Alburquerque was granted free agent status, catching on with the Tigers. The team initially assigned him to Triple-A, but after putting up 8 strikeouts in four scoreless innings, he was called up to the Big Show to augment Detroit’s struggling bullpen. The Tigers’ relievers currently boast a league-worst 5.50 ERA, though the pen’s 4.18 xFIP suggests that that has been partially a product of some bad luck.
Though the rest of the pen has underachieved thus far, Alburquerque as shown he may have what it takes to develop into a late-inning relief ace. His 15.92 K/9 currently lead all pitchers with more than 10 innings pitched, as his 23 strikeouts in 13 innings suggest he could be an intriguing late-game option. Though his ERA of 3.46 is nothing special for a reliever, his 1.69 FIP demonstrates that he has the potential to be much better. Alburquerque has only given up runs in two of his ten appearances, but both times he’s allowed multiple runners to cross the plate. He’s given up multiple walks on both occasions, never walking more than one batter in any of his scoreless outings. Alburquerque’s 6.23 BB/9 is weighed on heavily by these two appearances, but on nights when he can find the strike zone consistently, he’s been simply unstoppable, putting up a much-improved (although still somewhat wild) 3.2 BB/9 and a ridiculous 16.9 K/9. If he can get his good stuff going more consistently and avoid blow-up outings such as the ones he struggled through on April 19 in Seattle (0.2 IP, 2 BB, 2 ER) and May 11 in Minnesota (0.2 IP, 3 BB, 3 ER), he could be considered for set-up duties in place of struggling free agent signing Joaquin Benoit.
Alburquerque’s success relies heavily on his 84.7 MPH slider, which he throws on 64.3% of offerings. Though he’ll throw it in any count, his use of the pitch increases as he gets deeper into at-bats, as with two strikes he’s thrown his slider 77% of the time. He complements that pitch with a blazing 94.6 MPH fastball. Between his two offerings, Alburquerque has achieved a 15.5% swinging strike rate, third best in the AL, suggesting his incredible strikeout rate may be sustainable. Even when opponents have put the bat on the ball, Alburquerque has been able to induce mostly harmless contact, with opponents hitting the ball on the ground 55.5% of the time. That’s the 11th highest groundball rate among AL relievers, meaning Alburqurque’s among the best in baseball at the two most important things that make pitchers successful; striking batters out, and making them hit the ball on the ground when they don’t. Alburquerque’s high walk rate looks a little less ugly when you consider that many of those ground balls create chances for double plays to erase any bases he does give up on free passes.
With his heavy reliance on a filthy slider, mind-blowing strikeout rate, control troubles, and Dominican origin, it seems only natural to compare him to countryman Carlos Marmol. Only there are two main differences. First, Marmol hasn’t done nearly as well on batted balls in his career, as only a third of the contact against him goes for balls on the ground, while he’s allowing fly balls (and the possibility for home runs, especially devastating for pitchers who do allow walks on a regular basis) on more than half of balls in play. Second, both of Alburquerque’s offerings are roughly 3 MPH faster than Marmol’s, although that difference is exaggerated by a reduction in Marmol’s velocity so far this year. Still Marmol’s fastball has never averaged above the 94.1 MPH he put up last year, while Alburquerque’s has been at 94.6 and climbing this season. Though it remains to be seen if he can match the Chicago closer’s success over a sustained period of time, Alburquerque has the potential to become a strong contributor to the back end of Detroit’s bullpen.