Matt Albers has been a pleasant surprise for the Boston Red Sox. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
As far as I know it was Ben Kabak of the great Yankee blog River Avenue Blues who turned the Bill Cosby Fat Albert sketch into actual Red Sox commentary for the first time. In December, he jumped into the comment section of my post on the Matt Albers signing at Red Sox Beacon saying, "Hey Hey Hey, it's Matt Albers." Maybe my sense of humor is pretty lacking but I thought it was great, and still do. It's a little derisive and let's face it, it's not like a Yankees fan should have been shaking in his or her boots at the thought of a rival taking on a guy like Albers.
It just seemed appropriate. Albers is sort of funny-looking and has an entirely undistinguished professional career. Since his pitching isn't all that interesting, well, our time is probably best spent riffing on his name and maybe how his body type mimics the Cosby character, right?
There were signs of of hope, though. Albers had an excellent second half in 2010 and many scouts have always believed his stuff should translate into better performance. His fastball is heavy with downward action and late last year for the Baltimore Orioles he seemed to put it together. The Red Sox miss on plenty of guys like Albers but in terms of their process -- melding scouting and performance analytics as best they can -- the decision to ink Albers was sort of quintessential.
72 games into the 2011 season it seems like they got this one right. Albers impressed in his 10 Spring Training innings, posting a 1.80 ERA while mixing in 11 strikeouts against zero walks. He broke Fort Myers with the big club in part thanks to his strong work during the spring, and in part because he was out of options and the Red Sox would be sure to lose Albers if they tried to send him to Pawtucket. With Jonathan Papelbon entrenched as the closer, and high-profile additions like Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler joining Dan Bard in right-handed setup roles, it looked like Albers would be relegated to long-man duties.
Bullpens never come together according to plan, though. Jenks has battled ineffectiveness and injury. Bard had a spate of gopheritis earlier in the season. Wheeler has struggled. Not long after the season started, Tito was handing Albers the ball in high-leverage situations. These weren't just any high-leverage situations, either. These were when it seemed like the season was in the balance. It feels like a long time ago now, but the Red Sox NEEDED wins in mid-to-late April, and Albers was there to answer the challenge.
Among Boston relievers, Albers ranks second on the club in innings pitched, trailing only Bard. He trails only Rich Hill and Bard for OPS against. He's sporting a 2.27 K/BB and nothing about his peripherals suggests that he's due for major regression. He will probably give up a home run at some point -- he's given up zero to date -- but even with the good fly ball luck his xFIP stands at just 3.44.
The only risk, and it's not insignificant, is that Albers turns back into the high-contact walk machine he had been before the second half of 2010. The Red Sox and their fans, though, can take comfort in a mounting collection of evidence that Albers has indeed turned a corner. In his last 52 appearances, 68-plus innings suiting up for an AL East club, Albers has posted a 2.15 K/BB and a 3.42 ERA. Those are some shiny numbers for a guy the Red Sox were counting on for so little.