NEW YORK -- The man with the nearly unhittable pitch gave up one of the big hits of the Tigers' American League Division Series opening loss to the Yankees. That doesn't mean New York will see any less of Al Alburquerque's slider.
Still, Robinson Cano's grand slam could be a sign of the difference an effective fastball makes in Alburquerque's arsenal. He had it earlier this season. He'll get there consistently at some point in his career, Tigers officials believe.
Nearly three out of every five regular-season pitches from Alburquerque this year were sliders, a percentage that was actually higher earlier in the season. He had good reason to throw so many sliders: Hitters couldn't hit it, missing on nearly 60 percent of their swings at it. When they did hit it, they batted just .216 against it on balls put in play, according to STATS, Inc..
The bigger question for Alburquerque has been the fastball, which he has thrown hard all year but hasn't commanded as well as the slider. It's an odd relationship, since for most pitchers, the fastball is the easiest pitch to command.
One comparison could be former Tigers closer Fernando Rodney, who has what several hitters describe as one of the nastiest changeups in baseball. He has had that for virtually his entire Major League career, but it was less effective without a fastball that hitters had to respect. To get there, Rodney had to throw.
When Rodney made it to the big leagues for good in 2005, he threw fastballs with just over half his pitches, yet threw it for a lower percentage of strikes than his changeup. When Rodney racked up 37 saves for the Tigers in 2009, he threw nearly twice as many fastballs and commanded it in the strike zone nearly as well. In fact, opponents hit his fastball (.249) just barely better than his changeup (.243).
Rodney has never quite silenced his wildness. The Tigers believe Alburquerque will gain better command as he matures. Part of the reason is his fluid delivery. Another is health, and the repetitions he'll gain if he can get through a full season. That was one reason the Tigers pursued him as ardently as they did.
Just over half of Alburquerque's fastballs, 53.4 percent, went for strikes this regular season, according to STATS.