In 14th season, Brewers' Albers still evolving

Veteran reliever is 10th active pitcher with 600 career appearances

August 11th, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- made his Major League debut for the Astros in a July 2006 game that Roger Clemens started. Thirteen years and 600 appearances later, Albers is not only still pitching, but he’s still evolving.

Albers has returned to form and become a weapon against right-handed hitters -- a critical development for a Brewers team that lost one of its best righty relievers to a season-ending elbow injury (Corey Knebel) and has seen another (Jeremy Jeffress) struggle to repeat his performance from a year ago.

“He's just doing a tremendous job,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after Albers got the save in Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Rangers. “He's been awesome against right-handed hitters. I'm happy for him. Last year was a struggle for him, but he's bounced back in a huge way and is having a really nice season. We're counting on him for big stuff, and he's been delivering.”

The key has been Albers’ slider, which he is throwing at a career-high rate with solid results. It’s a big reason Albers has held right-handed hitters to a .528 OPS this season, down from .893 a year ago, when a shoulder injury derailed his season beginning in June and Albers was left off the postseason roster.

Now, in the second season of his two-year deal at 36 years old, he looks more like the pitcher who earned that contract with a career year for the Washington Nationals in 2017. After career appearance No. 600 on Saturday, Albers is on a pace to pitch in 70 games this season for the Brewers, which would be a career high.

“It feels good to bounce back, obviously,” he said. “I felt like I could still pitch at a good level, I just needed to be healthy and be consistent. It’s rewarding.”

Besides being healthy, technology gets some of the credit for Albers’ turnaround. He spent part of the offseason gathering data from TrackMan and Rapsodo devices at the Tomball, Texas, facility where Albers works out in the winter (Jimmy Nelson is another client), providing measurements of spin rate and axis and other metrics. Albers consulted with Brewers manager of advance scouting Brian Powalish on opponents’ scouting reports and brainstormed ways to turn that information around to his advantage. One major takeaway: More sliders.

“You guys watch the game. Fastballs over the plate don’t really come back,” Albers said. “You see the really analytical teams, their slider use is way, way up. So I think you just have to mix it up. It’s throwing strikes early in the count and being able to put away with sliders. You see guys mixing it up a lot, probably throwing a few more changeups to lefties as well. Everybody is trying to get them off a fastball.”

That’s been a problem lately for Brewers lefty Josh Hader, who has an electric fastball and throws it about 85 percent of the time. Albers and Hader have discussed adding more sliders to Hader’s mix.

“It’s a fine line,” Albers said. “That [Hader’s fastball] is one of the best pitches in baseball, and I love how Hader pitches. If he’s going to get beat, it’s going to be with his best stuff. I think that’s awesome. We’ve talked about that. He’s got to find a comfort level and a spot for it.”

Evolving helped Albers become the 10th active pitcher to reach 600 career appearances.

“I’ve been doing this a while now,” said Albers, “so to kind of be able to be in this game for a long time and pitch a lot -- I’ve tried to stay healthy most of my career and be available, so to get to that number is a cool feeling.”

Last call

• Christian Yelich missed a fifth consecutive start Sunday but returned to action and struck out as a pinch-hitter. He should be back in the lineup for Tuesday’s game against the Twins at Miller Park.

“If he was 100 percent ready to go, he’d be in the lineup,” Counsell said. “He’s progressing to more activity today, a pretty good level of activity, so we’ll get through that activity and we may consider him available for an at-bat today. If he has a good day before the game today, I’d say we’re in good shape for Tuesday.”

• Corbin Burnes is still struggling down at Triple-A San Antonio. In his last two starts, including a loss Saturday in which he allowed nine earned runs on nine hits while recording eight outs, Burnes has been knocked around to the tune of 15 earned runs on 17 hits in 4 2/3 innings, with only two strikeouts.

“The season’s not over and we’ve got to keep trying to come up with answers and keep helping him and making him better, and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” Counsell said. “In a lot of ways we measure things, his stuff has been better this year than it was last year. Obviously, the results are nowhere near the same. It makes you ask bigger questions and about bigger adjustments, and that’s all stuff that we’re talking about.”