MINNEAPOLIS — After he played for five teams in five seasons, Matt Albers has become a trusted member of the White Sox bullpen. He’s done so even though he has only pitched in 34 games for the club.
Albers — who in February signed a one-year deal worth $2.25 million with a club option for 2017 — said familiarity with the White Sox was a key factor in his decision to return. And that relationship is a big reason — along with Albers throwing the ball extremely well — as to why the veteran has already begun to in key spots for the 5-2 White Sox.
“There’s something he’s got, about being in there when stuff is burning down around him,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “He can calm it down and throw some stuff that guys can’t hit.”
The White Sox have acted accordingly when it comes to Albers’ performance. He’s in the midst of a scoreless streak that has extended 27 1/3 innings and over 24 games. The last time he allowed a run was July 31st.
And these aren’t just throwaway appearances; Albers has appeared in high-leverage situations in 11 of 30 games (36.7 percent) since he returned from the disabled list last July. Before he pitched for the White Sox, Albers only appeared in high-leverage spots in 91 of 364 games (25 percent) in his career.
“It’s great to come back,” Albers said. “I really enjoyed it here last year. I knew in the beginning of the offseason that it’s definitely a place I’d like to come back to and they showed interest and we were able to get a deal done. Just the familiarity with all the guys. Now that we’re putting it all together and winning games and it’s a lot of fun.”
A big reason Albers, 33, has had early success is an increase in his fastball velocity. Albers’ two-seam fastball is averaging 93.3 mph in 2016, up from 90 mph last season, according to brooksbaseball.net.
Through five innings this season, opponents are hitting .176 against Albers. They hit .228 in 2015 and he has allowed a .262 average against for his career.
Albers attributes his success to improved pitch location and the ability to effectively mix in his slider and changeup. He also credits the knowledge of Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila and their books on opposing hitters.
“Just locating, just being able to mix slider and changeup in,” Albers said. “Really just fine tuning those pitches and throwing them for strikes early in the count and move the ball in and out and really go off my catchers. It’s nice to have a couple of guys who have been around the league. I can really lean on those guys. …
“That just makes it easy for me. Lean on those guys and putting that all together.”
Pitching coach Don Cooper also thinks Albers’ experience is a big portion of the equation. Earlier in his career Albers was a long reliever. But as he’s grown older, Albers has figured out how to slow the game down in the midst of chaos.
He’s a calming presence in the clubhouse, the elder statesmen of the bullpen along with fellow Texan Zach Duke. Whereas Albers might get emotional on the field (see: Monday’s reaction after catching a bunt and turning a double play), he’s as composed as can be in the clubhouse. Cooper likes that along with the stuff Albers brings to the mound.
“He's a veteran guy, he's got movement, he keeps the ball down, he's got a good changeup,” Cooper said. “His velocity has come back a little more, which means he's even more dangerous, too. I like the veteran presence that he has.
“Because of his experience, now we feel very comfortable with him handling any situation.”
That security goes along way for Albers. He definitely considered leaving the White Sox if the right deal came along this offseason. But at the same time, Albers knew he had a good thing going if the White Sox made a competitive offer.
“It’s a place I feel comfortable with the coaching staff and obviously I had success last year,” Albers said. “So I think it’s a pretty easy decision to come back.”