Rare hanging slider costs Alburquerque dearly
Tigers fans don’t need to be reminded how important Al Alburquerque has been to the bullpen this season, and how nasty of a pitch his slider has been all year. For quite possibly the first time in his brief big league career, he threw one that was devastating to the Tigers’ fortunes.
“He threw a slider, and it didn’t do anything,” manager Jim Leyland said. “One of the best hitters in baseball hit it out.”
For that, all the Tigers could do about Robinson Cano’s sixth-inning grand slam was tip their cap. They had one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball this year throwing his best pitch. Cano was too good to miss a mistake.
Nearly three of every five swings at Alburquerque’s slider missed, according to STATS Inc., including a third of swings when the pitch was actually in the strike zone. It allowed him a lot of forgiveness for an upper-90s fastball that could be hit and miss.
Combine the arsenal, and he didn’t give up a home run in 43 1/3 innings in the regular season. But it was the strikeout potential that prompted Leyland to turn to him in that situation, with a 4-1 deficit and Cano up following Doug Fister’s two-out walk to Curtis Granderson to load the bases.
“If Granderson would’ve got a hit to make it 6-2, I would have brought in [lefty Daniel] Schlereth,” Leyland said. “But after he didn’t, we loaded the bases. Left-handers are hitting .177 off Alburquerque, .200 off Schlereth. Cano is [batting] .320 off of left-handers, .295 off righties. Alburquerque has had a tremendous ratio of swings and misses.”
Alburquerque faced Cano soon after his call-up to Detroit, in early May, and struck him out.
“That wasn’t the reason for it,” Leyland continued. “I felt that one of the reasons he’s been so valuable for us is he gets both righties and lefties out. He’s been tremendous, one of the best in all of baseball in swinging and missing. That’s the reason.”
Alburquerque, whose English is limited, politely declined comment after the game. Avila, who has caught Alburquerque ever since the Tigers called him up in late April, explained the setup.
“He’s got two sliders, one that he throws for a strike and one that normally goes out of the zone,” Avila said. “I think he just tried to make too good of a pitch there, and it just kind of stayed up. That happens.”
The first version, the one for a strike, was his first pitch to Cano, who took it. The second pitch was meant to be the sharper one, the one that falls out of the zone. He uses it when he’s ahead in the count and gets aggressive hitters swinging and missing.
It can be unpredictable, which is why he has the other slider. But when he misses it, it usually still breaks. This one spun, an 85 mph pitch about middle-up on the inner half.
“Normally it goes straight down,” Avila said. “That one didn’t really do anything.”
Cano belted it to right field for his first postseason home run, and the first by a Yankee since Ricky Ledee in the 1999 ALCS. He also improved to 9-for-19 with four grand slams and 31 RBIs with the bases loaded this year.
It was the far from a first for him. It was a first for Alburquerque.
“Tough spot for him to come in,” Avila said, “but he’s got the stuff to be able to get guys out there, and he will. It’s part of the game.”