The Red Sox scooped Matt Albers off of the free agent market in the winter of 2010, when the reliever still had three full years of team control left to his name. He had not been very impressive with Baltimore the year before, as he posted a 4.52 ERA, struck out a well below-average rate of batters, and struggled with his control. He was cheap and available, though, and the Red Sox had learned a valuable lesson about bullpen depth after an injury-plagued 2010.
Albers, for all his faults in his last year with the Orioles, was more than capable of inducing grounders. Nearly 57 percent of his balls in play were groundballs, helping to make up for the lack of strikeouts to a degree. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2008, he had allowed just 0.6 homers per nine innings pitched as well -- given he was handing out free passes to 4.3 batters per nine in the same stretch, this ability to keep the ball in the yard was necessary.
A strange thing happened once Albers was on the Red Sox. He wasn't guaranteed a job in the spring, but he threw 13-2/3 innings during spring training last year, striking out 8.5 batters per nine while keeping his usual groundball tendencies, too. This carried over into the regular season, where it became trend: over the course of 64 innings, Albers struck out 68 batters (9.5 per nine), nearly matching the career-high he set when he made 18 starts in 2007.
The ending didn't go quite as well as you'd think for a pitcher punching out nearly 10 per nine while inducing almost 50 percent grounders, though. Albers was phenomenal in the first half, securing the seventh inning gig that bridged to the Daniel Bard/Jonathan Papelbon tandem, and did so on the strength of 35 nearly flawless frames: 8.7 K/9, 2.3 K/BB, and just one homer allowed against 149 batters faced. The second half, things changed. Or, a thing changed, at least. Albers struck out even more hitters (10.8 per nine in 29-1/3 innings) but he gave up six homers and a .284/.394/.509 line to the 140 batters he faced.
Tossing those together gave Albers, despite the serious increase in whiffs, a 4.73 ERA even higher than the one that got him cut from Baltimore a year before. His FIP had actually improved about the same amount as his ERA had declined, moving to a more acceptable 4.00. But that FIP doesn't mean a whole lot if the home run problems are going to be a persistent issue.
Albers believes his problem that that he was too heavy on his sinker and slider combination. When he couldn't locate his sinker in the second half (his walk rate jumped to 4.9 per nine), he was left with just a slider, and a fastball that, when thrown in the zone to catch up in the count, was tattooed. He's been working on reintroducing his curve -- which he threw just 15 times last season -- in order to give him three viable pitches for the next time that happens. It's no guarantee that a bender will do the trick, but it certainly can't hurt a pitcher who turned everyone he faced in the second half into the 2011 version of Paul Konerko.
What's strange about the increase in strikeouts is that it was almost entirely due to location. Inducing swings-and-misses wasn't an Albers speciality, as Brooks Baseball shows:
Counts is how many times Albers threw a pitch, and the whiff/swing and GB/BIP are shown in terms of z-scores (standard deviation). His fastball was two standard deviations better than your typical heater, but he also threw a pure four-seamer just 34 times in 2011 -- the result was likely due to the surprise factor of seeing the pitch more than anything, given hitters were expecting sink. In terms of inducing swings-and-misses, Albers didn't succeed much with the offerings he relied on. His sinker picked up a few more swings-and-misses than your typical one, but in 2010 his whiff/swing z-score was 0.85 -- 2011 is not an improvement in that regard, despite the huge boost to his overall K/9.
Albers picked up 186 called strikes with his sinker, and induced 47 whiffs with it. He didn't have that level of command with any of his other offerings, and while he picked up a higher rate of whiffs on his slider, it wasn't a standout performance by any means. Given his lack of a true swing-and-miss offering, repeating the best parts of his 2011 command will be the key for him in 2012; without that, and without a third pitch to lean on, there's always the chance he gets hit hard once again. Albers walks a fine line, and while he can be valuable, he's also volatile, and there is plenty of competition to take innings from him in 2012 if need be.