Albers key cog in Nats' bullpen transformation

Veteran's altered approach has him ready to contribute in postseason

Albers key cog in Nats' bullpen transformation

WASHINGTON -- Baseball games, Nationals manager Dusty Baker says, are often dictated by a team's ability to knock opposing starting pitchers from the game. Today's starters and back-end bullpen arms, he says, are the toughest of hurlers to attack; if you can get to the opposing club's middle relief, that's when you have the best chance to win.

Washington's once-vulnerable middle relief has turned into an asset for Baker, and perhaps no one has played a bigger role in that transformation than veteran Matt Albers.

The 34-year-old right-hander is having a resurgent 2017 season. Among relievers who have thrown at least 50 innings, Albers ranks sixth with a 1.60 ERA. His 3.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio should easily surpass his career high set in 2015 with the White Sox.

Albers was given a chance to earn a spot on the squad as a non-roster invite to Spring Training, and he pitched his way onto the club. He had yet to allow a run in 11 1/3 frames at the time he recorded the first save of his career May 5 at Philadelphia.

Albers' first career save

Albers performed admirably in the role Baker needed him to fill, but it was clearly unfamiliar territory for the 12-year veteran. He allowed eight runs (seven earned) in 22 2/3 innings (2.78 ERA) from May 5 through the middle of July, but it's when general manager Mike Rizzo made the move to acquire relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from Oakland on July 16 that Albers returned to the nearly unhittable form he showed in the first month of '17.

With just three runs surrendered in 23 1/3 frames (1.16 ERA) since reverting to his middle-relief position, Albers has helped solidify a bullpen that looks vastly different from the one that struggled early on.

"Almost every situation we've brought him into, he's done an outstanding job," Baker said. "He's the find of the year in baseball."

The presence of Doolittle and Madson, along with fellow Deadline acquisition Brandon Kintzler, has enabled Albers to put a stronghold on the middle innings. His brilliance has taken Baker's bullpen to new heights.

The Nats ranked last in baseball with a 5.20 reliever ERA in the first half of 2017. Since the All-Star break, however, that number looks a lot prettier: 3.54, good for sixth in MLB.

Albers has been critical to the bullpen's success, even more so in his past 17 appearances -- over which he's completed 16 consecutive innings without having given up a run. He's brought his early-season experience in the late innings with him, inducing big outs in high-leverage situations once Baker removes his starter from the game.

"He's realized how important each out is in the game, and I think he knows he's going to get put into these high-leverage situations," catcher Matt Wieters said. "I think he's really embraced that role of, 'OK, I may not be finishing the game, but this is going to help our team and give us the best chance to win.'"

Matt Albers strikes out the side

So how did the guy who recorded a career-worst 6.31 ERA with just 30 strikeouts in 58 games last year turn it around so quickly? For starters: a change in hand position when he comes set. For much of his career, Albers began his delivery with his hands near his belt. This season, however, he's bringing his hands together to rest at his chest, helping him repeat his pitching motion more easily while eliminating excess movement.

Whereas before Albers had to bring his hands up to his chin level before reaching back and firing to the plate, he can now simply execute the final two steps. It's an easier motion for him to replicate, and one that is not quite as violent. In this case, less is more for him.

"I'm pitching to contact and not necessarily trying to strike guys out," Albers said. "In some situations, you just want a guy to hit a weak ground ball and try to get a double play, or you're in a situation where maybe you get some weak contact early in the count to keep your pitch count down."

Increased confidence in his slider has also paid big dividends for Albers. It's a pitch he threw in the strike zone 37.8 percent of the time in 2016, per Statcast™. This season, that zone percentage has increased to 41.1. His newfound trust in the breaking ball is evident with his usage of the pitch. Albers threw his slider 10.1 percent of the time last season, but he's leaning on it 27.6 percent of the time this year.

"He saw the success he was having with it early and was getting better feel of [it]," Wieters said. "He's able to manipulate the speed and where he wants to throw it. ... He knows where it's going to go, which I think gave him the freedom and confidence to throw it in any situation he wants to."

The result? Albers has an opponents batting average of .182 versus the pitch as well as an average exit velocity of 78.7 mph, down more than 10 mph from last season (88.9 mph).

"Being able to throw the slider for strikes -- and mixing it into lefties as well -- helps keep guys off balance," Albers said.

Albers' success with the slider is keeping opposing hitters at a crossroads when trying to decipher his entire repertoire. Among relief pitchers who have allowed more than 100 batted balls, Albers' 82.2-mph average exit velocity ranks third behind only Doolittle and the Indians' Andrew Miller. He's also allowed just four barreled balls -- which Statcast™ tells us leads to the most extra-base hits of any type of contact -- after allowing 18 a season ago.

A tweaked approach has Albers firing on all cylinders. And it gives Baker another crucial weapon in his arsenal as he maneuvers through the latter innings with the Nationals looking to make a deep postseason run.

"In the postseason, really every inning you're pitching, you feel like you're finishing the game, because every run is huge," Wieters said. "And so to have that experience of those four guys who have all closed out games this year is big. The second inning in a postseason game can feel like the ninth inning of a regular-season game, and so for all those guys to have experienced those kinds of emotions, adrenaline and feelings is huge for us going into the playoffs."

"We're all veteran guys who have the same goal," Albers added. "We want to win."

Oliver Macklin is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @OMacklinMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.