September 11, 2017 at 6:00 AM
One question sprang to Dusty Baker's mind when he first laid eyes on Matt Albers in February.
"Hey, man, is he in shape?" Baker wondered aloud at the Washington Nationals' spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Baker later pulled the book on the thickset right-handed reliever and realized Albers was the same size he'd been listed at for years — 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. Stout. Albers, a 34-year-old nonroster invite, the kind of veteran long-shot reliever the Nationals bring in by the half dozen every year, then proceeded to toss 11 scoreless innings in the Grapefruit League.
The performance didn't secure him a spot on the Opening Day roster, but the jovial Albers was called up from the minors within a week. By the end of April, he was the only consistently reliable reliever Baker could turn to until the club's obligatory bullpen overhaul in July. He's pitched in every imaginable on-field situation, from middle relief to the ninth, and he's recently pitched through unimaginable off-field stress as his son and pregnant wife withstood Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Albers's hometown.
And he's looked the same throughout it — like someone who doesn't belong on a baseball field, that is, until he starts slinging 94 mph sinkers past hitters.
"You got to look past how he looks," Baker said. "You got to look at it as he has a golden arm and is a good athlete. He's the find of the year for me. If they had such an award, he might be the find of the year in baseball."
Albers hasn't allowed a run in his past 14 outings, dropping his ERA to a skinny 1.66. That's the ninth-lowest mark in baseball among qualified relievers and second-lowest on the Nationals behind Ryan Madson's 1.38 ERA with Washington. He's striking out a career-high 9.7 hitters and allowing a career-low 5.4 hits per nine innings. His 0.894 WHIP and 3.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio are also career bests. On May 6 against the Philadelphia Phillies, Albers recorded his first career save in his 461st relief appearance. No pitcher in history has ever had more relief appearances without one.
"Number one, the person, he's a tremendous person," Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "He's got the heart of a lion. Nicest guy in the world, but he'll tear your heart out. He'll fight you. He's that kind of guy and he's easy to root for. And he's got three quality pitches. He's a three-pitch guy making quality pitch after quality pitch."
Success at this level is not foreign to Albers — it can't be for someone who's pitched into his mid-30s. He had a 2.39 ERA in 63 appearances with the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012, which he followed with a 3.14 ERA in 56 games for the Cleveland Indians in 2013. Then his career hit a pothole with the Houston Astros in 2014. He allowed a run across 10 innings before he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder tendinitis on April 25. Three months later, he was transferred to the 60-day DL. He didn't pitch in an Astros uniform again.
He posted a 1.21 ERA for the Chicago White Sox in 2015, but a fractured finger, which he sustained policing a benches-clearing brawl, sidelined him for nearly three months and limited him to 30 games. He finally logged a full slate last season, and, at age 33, compiled a career-worst 6.31 ERA in 58 outings. The performance left him without a big league contract offer.
"I think my stuff was still good last year," said Albers, who has the most career relief outings in baseball without pitching in the playoffs. "It was just missing over the plate and trying to almost make up for a lost season toward the end and not really pitching. I still felt like I could be successful."
Albers said he made one minor adjustment over the winter: Last season, he was coming set with his hands around the belt. He moved that set position a little higher to around his chest to eliminate some movement, which helped create a consistent release point.
Repertoire-wise, Albers said he's thrown his four-seam fastball up in the zone more, especially against lefties. His four-seam fastball usage, according to FanGraphs, is up to 16.8 percent this season from 5.2 percent last season. He's also throwing his slider more than ever (28 percent), while his two-seamer usage is down to 50.1 percent from 69.2 percent in 2016. The more varied combination creates more guesswork for hitters.
"Keep making quality pitches, you might give up a hit here and there," Maddux said, "but you keep the crooked numbers away and that's what he's done."
Baker was an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers when Fernando Valenzuela, a squat left-hander, burst onto the scene in 1981 and was later told to lose weight. Baker recalled Valenzuela following orders and losing effectiveness. Teammates fed him extra food to gain the weight back. He thought of Valenzuela when talking about Albers.
"Everybody's not the same," Baker said. "There are different body types. I've seen guys built like Adonis and get nobody out. Like, 'Damn, look at that guy. He can't get nobody out.' "
Albers has gotten plenty of guys out. Without him, the Nationals' disastrous pre-July bullpen, the one with the highest ERA in baseball, would have blown more games than it did. Albers was a constant late-inning option then. With Brandon Kintzler, Madson and Sean Doolittle on board, he's used in fewer high-leverage situations late in games with leads. But nothing else has changed. He still looks the same, and he's still getting guys out.
"I like to do it my way," Albers said. "I think at the end of the day they just want you to get outs. They don't really care. I just kept it to that."