Alburquerque's presence looms large for Tigers
Reliever has been effective when healthy, but has just 62 innings in two years
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The first thing Al Alburquerque did when asked about his outing was shake his head.
"It's too early, too early," Alburquerque said.
He has a point. The second outing of the spring is awfully early to be judging a relief pitcher.
With Alburquerque, though, the key judgment isn't really how he's pitching at this early point in the spring. It's that he's pitching.
The Tigers generally know what they're going to get from Alburquerque when he's in the game if he's right. The easiest way to improve is to get more games from him. While they could use better from the reliever, as track records go, they need more Alburquerque.
That's why his simple presence here is big.
"I feel healthy. I feel good," Alburquerque said. "I just need to make my pitch and be ready for the season."
He has been a Tiger for two years, yet he has just 62 innings in a Detroit uniform, including the postseason. He has three times as many strikeouts (90) as hits allowed (30) in those innings, and though he has also walked 37, he has ended 31 innings with strikeouts, 19 of those stranding runners in scoring position.
He has yet to make an Opening Day roster. He was essentially a spectator at this point last spring, beginning the season on the disabled list after elbow surgery. He came back in September and played a role in the Tigers' late charge to their second consecutive division title. Opponents hit just 6-for-45 against him, with 18 strikeouts.
A year earlier, he was enjoying a dominant midsummer stretch when he was hit by a line drive in pregame batting practice in Baltimore, causing a concussion that brought his year to a halt until the tail end of the regular season.
His out-pitch, the slider, can inflict some of the worst damage on an elbow over time. Yet it's an out-pitch he can throw time and again and get similar results. Against a group of Astros reserves Tuesday, it was almost unfair, getting at least three swings and misses, one foul ball, and nothing put in play.
Even at this early stage, Alburquerque knows he can go to it. He also knows better than to overuse it in games that don't count. He wants to work on the fastball, improve his command, and get to the point where he can count on that when he needs something besides the slider.
"I know I've got my slider," he said, "but I need to work on my fastball too. Because my slider, I've got every time."
The stats back him up. They're some of the stranger stats you'll see from a late-inning reliever with a power arm, but they speak to how consistently good his slider has become.
According to STATS, Alburquerque went to the slider for 62.3 percent of his pitches in his season-ending stint last year. The rest were fastballs. His mix was more balanced over more appearances in 2011, but still favored the slider at 57.1 percent.
Unlike 2011, Alburquerque threw his slider in the strike zone last year more consistently than his fastball. In fairness, some of those fastballs out of the strike zone might have been intentional to try to tempt hitters to chase them. When he threw the fastball in the strike zone, they connected all but one out of 16 swings.
It all involves a small sample size, but that proves the point: Because Alburquerque doesn't have a full Major League season under his belt, there's still an air of potential to him. Even having a full spring to work on his stuff is a luxury he didn't enjoy.
He wants to work on the fastball this spring to get it more consistent and effective. It's the next step.
"Most of the time I have my slider, but if you pitch in the big leagues, you have to have your fastball too," Alburquerque said. "I'm working on throwing strikes with my fastball."
His fastball was a bit of a mixed bag Tuesday in his lone inning against the Astros, sailing high a few times when he needed it, including a two-out walk on a full count. It also got him a flyout on an 0-2 pitch to Trevor Crowe in a count when many hitters would look for the slider from him.
There's a balance to that, because Alburquerque is still approaching this spring to try to win a job. To that point, when manager Jim Leyland was asked about the impact Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal can have on his bullpen depth if they're effective, Leyland corrected the question.
"If they're on the team," Leyland reminded.
If Alburquerque pitches the way he has for most of the last couple of seasons, that won't be a question for long. The Tigers will take it, but they need it more often.