In the wake of the Lorenzo Cain signing and Christian Yelich trade, David Stearns made perhaps his shrewdest, albeit not the flashiest, move of the offseason. He signed age-35 right-handed reliever Matt Albers to a two-year, $5 million dollar contract.
Albers is coming off the best season of his twelve-year career. He posted 1.2 WARP, a career-high, over 61 innings in 63 games. His K/9 shot up to 9.30 after striking out just 5.26 per nine in 2016. The righty also posted a WHIP below 1.00 (0.85) for the first time in his career.
Last year, Albers was one of just seven relief pitchers to strikeout more than nine batters per nine innings and have a ground ball rate above 50 percent. It was the first time in Albers’s career he was able to pair an elite strikeout rate with his usually-excellent ground ball rate. For example, in 2011, he posted a strikeout per nine above 9.00 but his ground ball rate dipped below 50 percent.
Albers will likely fill the setup role Anthony Swarzak filled in the second half of 2017, but at about a third of the price. Swarzak signed for fourteen million over two years with the New York Mets in December. Although Albers can’t match Swarzak’s flashy earned run average and strikeout rate, he provides much needed depth while allowing the Brewers to spread out financial resources.
Since Albers had a career-year at thirty-four, the righty’s 2016 immediately screams fluke to most. However, the combination of refining his walk rate and his newfound, nearly complete reliance on his slider and sinker made Albers’s breakout possible.
Early in his career, Albers was a base on balls machine. He walked over four batters per nine innings in each of his first six seasons. In the two following seasons, 2012 and 2013, he walked 3.3 batters per nine. Since 2014, the righty has walked over 3 batters per nine just once, and walked just 2.5 batters per nine last year. Although Albers’s walk rate is still not elite, it’s respectable, opposed to the disaster it was early in his career.
Last year, Albers nearly became a two-pitch pitcher after working as a four or five-pitch pitcher throughout the rest of his career. He completely ditched his curveball, a pitch he threw just under a quarter of the time in his first four seasons in the big leagues and 12 percent of the time as recently as 2013. He used his four-seam fastball for just one month, August, his worst month of the season, and then ditched it again in September.
Albers became almost exclusively a sinker/slider guy. He threw either his sinker or slider over 91 percent of the time in 2017. In April, his best month of the season, he threw his sinker or slider over 97 percent of the time.
Because of his age and questionable late-career breakout, PECOTA is justifiably down on Albers. PECOTA calls for a 4.64 DRA and just 0.2 WARP in 52 innings for the right hander. But PECOTA may not account for Albers becoming a different pitcher as far as pitch mix goes last season. Additionally, his improved command throughout his career may change his outlook. Albers has learned to harness his control while relying on pitches that dip and cut.
David Stearns gave Albers the first multi-year contract of his career out of faith in the pitcher he was last year. If Albers can continue his solid command, while relying solely on his sinker and slider, the Brewers have just found their new setup man for Corey Knebel for pennies on the dollar.
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