By: Kurt Snyder
The decision to non-tender Al Alburquerque this past week was really quite a shame. It’s the culmination of a once very promising Tiger career.
Al had so much promise when he began with the Tigers in 2011. He demonstrated the kind of tools you couldn’t wait to unleash on hitters.
He possessed a mid-90’s fast ball along with a debilitating slider that most of the time made hitters look silly, whether they swung at the ball or not. It either broke your ankles or made you lunge for a ball you were never going to hit in the first place.
Al’s slider was a swing-and-miss pitch, the kind I figured would land him someday in the ninth inning, closing games. He had fierce competitiveness and knew he could dominate with that lethal slider. But his biggest enemy was always control. Even back in 2011, when he was dominating hitters, the walks continued to be his enemy.
He emerged onto the scene in a year when the Tigers began making annual trips to the playoffs. And you could see how important he could be for a bullpen always in need of late inning guys who could end trouble with strikeouts.
As I combed through a Baseball Reference blog from 2011, I found this: Al, through June 19th of 2011, was on the verge of a record-setting season. Batters had gone 10 for 82 against him, a .122 batting average! Since 1919, 6 pitchers had held opponents to a batting average less than .140 (posted by John Autin on 6/19/11).
He was magnificent! He cruised through June, cruised through July and into August and then …. it happened.
While playing catch in the outfield during Baltimore’s batting practice, Alburquerque incredibly, was drilled with a line drive to the side of his head; a ridiculously freak and dangerous accident that could have killed him. Oriole second baseman Robert Andino, who had hit the liner, could not continue batting practice; he was too shook up.
Who knows how this may have affected the rest of Al’s career. He pitched in only 8 games in 2012, having suffered from other injuries other than the concussion on that fateful day in Baltimore. I guess you could say that bad luck had just found Al.
He would have success again but would never again discover the dominance he displayed during his first season with the Tigers.
When he was on a roll he was fun to watch, because hitters knew the slider was coming and still could not figure out how to hit it. But Al could never get himself together enough, he couldn’t overcome his inconsistencies. And that is what ultimately spelled the end for him in a Tiger uniform.
In his final couple of years, he was relegated mostly to middle relief. Most of his late inning opportunities came when the team was behind and he was brought in to minimize the damage in the middle of an inning. But you held your breath, because you didn’t know if he would have his electric stuff to end an inning or struggle with his control, or even balk, to prolong it.
That’s right; balks became a problem late in his career with the Tigers as well. Maybe Al himself wondered what would end up being his undoing each and every time he came into a game. Would it be walks, would it be balks, what would it be?
So, his exit from the Tiger pen this past week was not a surprise. In fact, I thought it was a necessary move as the majority of the issues with Tiger relief pitchers have been their incredible inconsistencies. And Al Avila has removed quite a few of the guys who suffered from it the most.
I have to wonder what might have been for Al Alburquerque. Did that awful day in Baltimore impact the rest of his career? Maybe. Maybe not.
Al had the makings of a dominant pitcher in 2011. But he only had marginal success with the Tigers thereafter, always struggling with control and mental toughness.
And these days, when you are trying to win a championship, those are traits you can’t live with for very long. The Tigers could no longer afford to keep an Everyday Al.