Detroit Tigers: the Alburquerque impact

During the Detroit Tigers 2011 spring training season we were introduced to a relatively unknown relief pitcher with a short resume and a long last name. Since then, all Al Alburquerque has done is strike out everything in his path.

Alberto Jose Alburquerque, 24, was originally signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2003 by the Chicago Cubs as a 20-year old. The Tigers snagged him as a free agent this past off-season after the Colorado Rockies had apparently seen enough of his increasingly erratic control issues. He walked 19 in 34.1 innings at AA Tulsa in 2010.

What started off as an unheralded and relatively undocumented pickup by the Tigers has turned into the surprise rookie breakout player early on in 2011.

Al Alburquerque

The book on the 6’0’’, 195 lb. Alburquerque was that he had a big, but unstable, fastball and an electric slider that he could actually command almost at will. That scouting report came to light during spring training as he pitched 7.1 innings and issued 7 walks but flashed promise with 13 strikeouts.

The Tigers let him hang around deep into camp and it might be that nod of approval and time around the big club that has eased Alburquerque into his new role with the Tigers.

Al started off in AAA Toledo this spring but only pitched in 3 games before the phone rang. Over those 4 innings with the Mud Hens he struck out 8 hitters but more importantly walked just 1. With the Tigers’ bullpen in need of an early shot in the arm he was elevated to the big club while the team was out west in Oakland during mid April.

Since arriving in Oakland, Alburquerque has been baffling hitters on a regular basis with an absolutely dirty slider. In fact, the impact he has brought to the Tigers is the pitching equivalent of what Brennan Boesch brought to the Tigers’ offense for a few months after his April call-up last year.

He is able to pitch multiple innings, which he has done in 3 of his 9 appearances thus far, including a 3-inning, 6-K masterpiece against Cleveland on April 30th.

The numbers are so astounding at this point that they are almost hard to publish for fear of disbelief on the collective behalf of the readers. In 12.1 innings, he has allowed just 4 hits and 2 runs. He has walked 6, which is a bit high, but when you combine that with an other-worldly 22 strikeouts, it really doesn’t matter does it?

His K/9 innings is 16.05, which leads the American League and trails only the Marlins’ lefty specialist Randy Choate throughout all of MLB. Choate has pitched just 6 innings. Alburquerque has managed a 1.46 ERA and 0.81 WHIP to boot.

Is it unreasonable to think that Alburquerque could be to this year’s Tigers what Joel Zumaya was in his rookie year in 2006? Zumaya was dynamite out of Jim Leyland’s pen during the ’06 pennant season. He had a dynamic presence on the mound and struck out batters at an absurd rate. Sound familiar?

Zumaya broke in and was able to be part of a 3-part back end of the pen that featured Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney. Alburquerque has the luxury of working behind Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit.

The anticipation of watching Alburquerque drop yet another slider under the bat of a helplessly swinging opponent and then jog off the mound with an air of cockiness is going to spread like wildfire around Comerica Park this summer.

Back in the mid 80′s the Tigers had Senor Smoke in Aurelio Lopez. Allow me to introduce you to Senor Slider.

The biggest knock on him is that he continues to have issues controlling his 95-97 MPH fastball. If he can begin to throw that pitch with accuracy and maintain the silly late break on his slider, his upside is that of a major league closer.

But, as already suggested, with a slider that rivals the best in the big leagues; does his sporadic fastball control really even matter? With Alburquerque, the Tigers have caught lightning in a bottle. Enjoy the ride.