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2013 Indians Player Preview: Matt Albers

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue our look at the relief corps with a new member of the Indians’ bullpen: Matt Albers.

Background: The Houston Astros took Albers out of high school in the 23rd round of the 2001 MLB amateur draft. He came up through the minors as a starting pitcher (placing on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in 2007), but after struggling in the Astros’ rotation in 2006 and 2007 he was traded to Baltimore in the Miguel Tejada trade and the Orioles moved him to the bullpen. Albers was a so-so reliever for the Orioles and the Red Sox until 2012, when he had a career year with Boston and Arizona. He came to Cleveland in December as part of the Shin-Soo Choo trade.

Last year: Albers had a career year in 2012, throwing 60.1 innings with a 2.39 ERA (181 ERA+) in 63 appearances for the Red Sox and Diamondbacks. Yet he did it with underwhelming peripheral numbers: though his 3.3 BB/9 rate was the best of his career, his strikeout rate plummeted (6.6 K/9, down from 9.5 in 2011) and he was quite susceptible to the long ball (1.3 HR/9). A .226 BABIP was doubtless responsible for his impressive numbers—the DIPS stats varied in their assessments of his true talent level (SIERA had him at 3.66 while tERA pegged him as high as 5.45), but they all agreed that he wasn’t as good as he looked.

Baseball-Reference valued Albers’ 2012 performance at 0.4 wins above replacement, while FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both put him below replacement level.

Key factor: Inducing weak contact. There’s no way the .226 BABIP Albers allowed last year is sustainable, but there’s reason to believe he can continue to outperform his peripherals. Albers is a sinkerball pitcher, meaning that even when batters make contact the ball (ideally) won’t go very far, and last year a full 58 percent of batted balls he gave up were either grounders or pop flies. However, Albers’ hit rate against had topped .300 three years in a row prior to 2012, so it’s far from a given that his DIPS-beating ways will continue in 2013.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Oliver thinks Albers can keep up his success in 2013, but no one else seems to.

Best-case scenario: A repeat of 2012 is basically out of the question, but that doesn’t mean Albers won’t keep up some of the progress he made last year. The Oliver projection hits the optimistic scenario about right on the head—he gives the Indians a full season of solid middle relief and a mid-3.00’s ERA while helping to take the pressure off some of the younger members of the bullpen corps.

Worst-case scenario: We’ve seen this movie before—say, in 2011. And 2010. And 2009. Albers struggles to find the strike zone, he can’t get batters to swing and miss, and he can’t make them hit it weakly when they invariably make contact. His ERA approaches 5.00, Terry Francona is hesitant to use him in anything but low-leverage situations, and the Indians call up one of their many Triple-A relievers to take his place.

What to expect: It’s hard to say. Albers pitched radically differently in 2012 than he has in the past and saw radically different (and also unexpected) results. I’d probably go with the Bill James projections—he’ll be a solid member of the middle relief corps, but he won’t come anywhere near the level he reached last year.

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