For all the pain he has caused Baltimore fans in the past few years, it raised a few eyebrows when the Sox inked Matt Albers 10 days ago.
The soon-to-be 27 year-old has endured a relatively rocky Major League career, posting a 5.11 ERA over 317.3 IP. Totaling just 1.3 WAR over a five year career (not to mention a 1.38 K:BB ratio), he doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a Red Sox’ middle reliever.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to be bullish on Albers, as the righty has a rather intriguing skill set that suggests better performances to come.
While Albers is no stud in the strikeout department (note the 82.8 percent contact rate), his primary and overarching skill is the ability to induce ground balls. Posting a 28.9 percent fly ball rate last season (and 32.3 percent over his five-year career), Albers has been able to control the damage when he is on the mound.
Preventing home runs is often one of the less expensive traits on the free agent reliever market, as many teams have a tendency to overspend on inferior pitchers who generate more strikeouts.
Albers is one of those types, as his ground ball rate is what separates him from being AAA fodder. For example, if we hold Albers’ 2010 peripherals steady, but raise his fly ball percentage to 45 percent — a rate typical of a fly ball reliever — his expected ERA would rise from a useful 4.394 to a damaging 5.011. Without a low fly ball rate, Albers becomes less than ordinary very quickly.
Perhaps the one reason to be cautious about Albers is that his upside is limited. Lacking swing-and-miss stuff, as well as a tendency to lose his handle on the strike zone, Albers will often teeter on the edge of replacement level in any given season.
Of particular concern is his very low zone percentage, which stood at just 38.3 percent last season. While some of that was certainly by design (as evidenced by his 30.6 percent O-Swing rate), it bears watching for the upcoming season. Hopefully, Albers can raise his zone percentage into the mid-40s, while keeping his O-Swing in the upper 20s. If he is able to select his chase pitches more effectively, he may be able to cut his walk rate under 4.00 per nine, while dropping his ERA into the low 4.00s.
One last point of concern about Albers has to do with a factor of his performance that holds a bit of uncertainty. When running through his projections, I arrived at two slightly different conclusions regarding his 2010 expected ERAs. The first result of his expected ERA, the number I often quote, yielded a 4.255 expected ERA.
However, when standardizing for his expected strand rate, Albers fared worse, projecting a 71.8 percent strand rate (compared to an actual rate of 69.1 percent). This strand rate produced an expected ERA of 4.533, right in line with his actual ERA of 4.52.
Unfortunately, much of the reason to be optimistic about Albers has to do with the first ERA projection of 4.25. On the other hand, I am still in the process of gathering data to create a more reliable strand rate evaluation, so there is room for interpretation. Of note, in the studies I have conducted, starting pitchers have almost no control over their strand rate, while relievers have shown a good amount thus far. However, without a concrete reason for this discrepancy, I will seek to acquire more data.
In the end, there is no reason not to be excited about the Red Sox addition of Matt Albers. Besides the possibility of latent improvement, Albers has compiled just three full years of service time, allowing the club to keep him under control through 2013. Steady, cost controlled relief pitching is always a welcome commodity, and Albers adds some flexibility in this department for the next couple years. He’s not a sexy acquisition, but depth is often what separates the contenders from the wannabes.
Just ask the 2010 Red Sox.