A few nights ago, I had another ill-advised argument regarding Matt Albers on Twitter with a certain Baseball Tonight anchor who shall remain nameless. It wasn’t pretty. Unlike last time, I won’t give you a play-by-play because quite frankly, we both came out of the discussion looking like children that can’t play together nicely in the sand box. Needless to say, it started with a remark I perceived to be somewhat “trolling,” and ended with me challenging him to write a Sweet Spot article backing up his opinion. Although I’d welcome reading an article discussing his opinion on Matt Albers‘s recent struggles, I’m not expecting it any time soon. It’s his prerogative, and I respect his decision. Honestly, I’d like to call a truce with my worthy adversary. Even if we don’t agree on everything, I have no doubt we can interact civilly, and perhaps even learn from each other. Moving on…
Thankfully, Tim Britton of the Providence Journal felt a little differently about the subject, and decided to examine Albers’s downturn a little further.
“The month of August, however, hasn’t gone well for Albers, who has yielded more earned runs in this month (11) than he did in the season’s first four (10).
Some of Albers’ struggles can be traced to bad luck. After Saturday, opponents are hitting .391 on balls they put in play against Albers in August, as opposed to .283 before. Four of the eight runs he’s allowed in his last two outings have scored after he’s left the game.”
Britton’s right. While the month of August hasn’t been kind to Albers, some of his struggles can be traced back to plain bad luck. For example, over his last eight appearances, hitters have produced a .370 batting average on balls in play against him. Knowing what we know about BABIP, we can surmise that he’s likely been the victim of poor defense, at least in part. Over time, luck will even itself out, and his BABIP will regress towards the league average mark of .290. Upon reviewing his batted ball data for the month, we find he’s allowing line drives only 14% of the time, while maintaining a GB/FB hovering around 1:1. The prevalence of these two factors indicate an expected BABIP substantially lower than the .370 mark he’s allowed; thus lending credence to the poor luck hypothesis.
Unfortunately, we can’t point entirely to luck as a reason for his struggles; command has played a role as well. Prior to August 1st, Albers produced a 43/18 K/BB ratio, putting him on a pace to finish with the best K/BB ratio of his career. In the eight appearances since, he’s posted a much less aesthetically pleasing mark of 9/6. Add in a pair of HBPs, and his ratio lowers even further to 9/8. Considering his career high K/BB prior to this season was 1.44 (with the Orioles in 2010), a healthy dose of regression toward the mean should probably have been expected. Furthermore, given the fact he’s allowed eight free passes over the last nine innings, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the results. Factor in a healthy dose of poor luck on balls in play, and we have a recipe for disaster.
So why is Albers suddenly allowing more walks? It’s tough to say, but I believe the answer lies with his sinker (SI) and slider (SL). According to Texas Leaguers, Albers has struggled to throw his SI for strikes since the calendar flipped from July to August. Armed with a robust 75% strike rate prior to August 1st, he’s seen that rate plummet to 55% since. The issue seems to be rooted in the vertical movement of the pitch where he’s seeing nearly an additional inch in movement. While an inch might not seem like much, it is when you consider the strike zone’s relatively small dimensions. If he’s getting an additional inch of sink on his SI, more of those pitches are dipping out of the strike zone and being taken for balls. Not surprisingly, this leads to deeper counts and a higher probability of accumulating walks. Incidentally, he’s seeing more whiffs as a result (6.8% prior, 12.5% in August), meaning it’s still an effective weapon. Unfortunately, the additional whiffs haven’t been enough to offset the deeper counts caused by the lower swing rate.
As for his SL, his biggest problem has not been his strike rate, but his swing rate, which has dropped from 42% to 32% in August. Like with his SI, he seems to be getting additional inch of vertical movement on SL. Not surprisingly, as more of his pitches break out of the strike zone, fewer batters have been inclined to swing at them. These two effects combined have created a compound effect wreaking havoc on his command. In all likelihood, he’s probably suffering from his mechanics being slightly off-kilter. Provided the flaw is identified quickly, it’s something that could work itself out quickly before the playoffs.
The last point I’d like to touch upon is Britton’s comment regarding inherited runners. Over his last two appearances, Albers has allowed eight runs, four of which scored after he left the game. While Albers clearly is responsible for the runners reaching base, he’s not solely responsible for said runners coming around to score. He shares that burden with the pitcher (or pitchers) that allow those runners to score as a result of their performance. Unfortunately, ERA doesn’t see this distinction, and gives full credit to the pitcher that put the runners on base. While I don’t really want to get on my soapbox to preach about the dangers of judging pitchers (especially relief pitchers) based on their ERA, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the inherit flaw in logic. ERA, though not a useless stat, is an unreliable measure for pitcher performance that omits a number of external factors affecting the overall result. This is why I prefer ERA-estimators like FIP and SIERA. These statistics strive to measure the result of a pitcher’s skill; not the impacted result. According to both measures, he’s produced an identical 3.25 mark, indicating he’s slightly underperformed in comparison to his 3.63 ERA. Provided his performance baseline remains steady, we can reasonably predict his overall performance will improve over the next six weeks. While this is by no means a guarantee, it certainly points toward a positive outcome.
In conclusion, I’m not concerned about Albers’ prospects as a reliever during the playoffs. With six weeks remaining in the season, it’s too early to sound the alarms in panic. That said, it might be advantageous for the Red Sox to temporarily downgrade his role while he works the kinks out, and allow Dan Wheeler to take on a few higher leverage innings. It might be beneficial for both pitchers and the team as a whole.