During the first half of the season, Matt Albers was the Washington Nationals' best reliever by a landslide. But the bullpen was a train wreck, so nobody noticed. Since the All-Star break, he’s been just as good, if not better. Yet he remains overlooked because he wasn’t part of the pen's blockbuster midseason makeover. Being underestimated is nothing new for Albers. While there's no denying he can pitch, the husky righty has had to swim upstream -- because he doesn't necessarily look like a pitcher.
“Matt didn’t have the greatest body,” says former Astros scout Rusty Pendergrass, now with the Diamondbacks. Back in 2000, when Pendergrass first laid eyes on Albers, he wasn't quite sure what to make of the hefty high school junior from Houston. “He didn’t look the part, but I decided to stay there and watch him throw, and it was really good.”
"Call him the Michelin Man, Humpty Dumpty, whatever you want. The bottom line is, he performs." AL scout on Albers
What he saw was a lightning-quick arm with plus movement on his sinker and slider, and a deceptively good athlete who was a strike-throwing machine. Pendergrass spent the next year trying to sell Houston’s front office, and it worked. Kind of. At the end of his senior season, Albers was drafted by the Astros, but not until the 23rd round.
“If he had a better body,” says Pendergrass, “he probably would’ve gone higher.”
Sixteen years later, Albers takes pride in being a 23rd-rounder. “A lot of teams had quite a few chances,” he says, referring to the other 29 clubs that passed on him nearly two dozen times before the Astros finally pulled the trigger with the 686th overall pick. “I try to make the most out of that.”
That hasn’t necessarily been easy for Albers, who’s been dismissed in the big leagues almost as much as he was during the draft process.
Now in his 12th season in the majors, Albers has played for seven different teams, including the Astros (two separate times, Orioles, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Indians, Astros, White Sox and Nationals. Between the roundabout resume and the rounded physique, he’s a little like Bartolo Colon 2.0 (minus two teams and 55 pounds). Like Colon, he’s a sneaky-good athlete who last season crushed an extra-base hit that became an Internet sensation:
Unlike Colon, he hasn’t topped the $100 million mark in career earnings. Not even close. In fact, Albers has never earned more than $2.25 million in a season, which is peanuts for a veteran with as much tenure as he has. In fairness to the clubs that contracted him, especially earlier in his career, those decisions were likely less about his body and more about his body of work.
During his first six years in the show, Albers struggled with his control and had only one campaign in which he posted an ERA south of 4.50. Over the past six years though, he’s quietly developed into one of the game’s more effective relievers, pitching to a 2.93 ERA since the beginning of the 2012 season. “His command on both sides of the plate has gotten better throughout his career,” says Nationals backstop Matt Wieters, who spent 2009 and 2010 catching Albers in Baltimore, where some fans became disenchanted with the hurler’s poor performance and started referring to him as “Fat Albers.”
Since then, the 34-year-old righty has introduced a change-up that he deploys against lefties and started throwing his sinker down and away to righties instead of exclusively down and in. He’s also mixing in a four-seam fastball to go along with the filthy slider he already had. Says Wieters: “His stuff allows him to pitch to any hitter in any situation.”
That ability to pitch anytime and anywhere is part of what has made Albers such a valuable commodity for manager Dusty Baker and the NL East champs. He’s entered games as early as the fifth inning and as late as the 10th. He’s been a situational guy, pitching to just one batter on six different occasions (opponents are 0-for-6 and have hit into two double plays), and he’s been a multi-inning guy, throwing more than one frame a dozen times (his ERA is 0.00 in those outings). On May 5, he even recorded his first career save, breaking a string of 460 relief appearances without one (an MLB record). Among National League relievers with 50 or more appearances, he ranks fifth in ERA (1.72), third in WHIP (0.88), and tied for second in batting average against (.170).
Although his body type would never be confused with that of Andrew Miller, the long and lanky Indians lefty who dominated last postseason in a super-reliever role, it’s entirely possible Albers -- who’s never appeared in a playoff game -- could have a similar impact this October. In the meantime, he’s too busy mowing down hitters to care about what people think of his physique.
"You can do all the judging you want, but he goes out there and gets outs. [He's] one of the best relievers in baseball."Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki on Albers
“I obviously know about the perception,” says Albers, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, the same height and only five pounds more than Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy. In 2016, prior to joining Murphy and the Nationals, he posted a career-worst 6.31 ERA with the White Sox. Still, Albers views the season as a success because, unlike 2014 (torn subscapularis muscle) and 2015 (broken finger), he was able to stay whole, just as he has this year. “Mostly I focus on staying healthy and what my teammates think about me. The other stuff, what the outside world thinks, I can't really control that much. As long as I feel like they have my back and they want me on their team, that's all I can do."
For the record, his fellow Nats seem tickled to have him on their side.
“He's been as good if not better than the new guys,” says righty reliever Shawn Kelley, referring to Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler, the trio of deadline acquisitions who grabbed all the ink and have helped stabilize what was once a wretched Nationals bullpen. “And he's done it all year.”
He’s done it without the benefit of a cool nickname like Doo or Mad Dog (he’s known as Albie or Matty Al in the clubhouse), and he’s done it without the benefit of the doubt. “People might judge him before they realize what he can do on the mound,” says lefty Sammy Solis of Albers, a non-roster invitee in spring training who didn’t even make the big club out of camp, then got called up from the minors a week into the season. “When he gets out there, it's just absolutely electric.”
Even his opponents are impressed. “You can do all the judging you want, but he goes out there and gets outs,” says Braves backstop Kurt Suzuki, who’s spent the past three years in the same division as Albers and is a lifetime .133 hitter against him. “One of the best relievers in baseball.”
Back in the Nats clubhouse, nobody's been more wowed by Albers than his manager. “I didn’t know much about him,” said Baker, who has spent his entire career in the National League, “but I’m glad we got him. He’s been the find of the year.”
Now that Washington’s found him, they’re not likely to let him out of their sight any time soon. If they do, there’s sure to be no shortage of suitors for his services, regardless of his figure.
“Call him the Michelin Man, Humpty Dumpty, whatever you want,” says one AL scout. “The bottom line is, he performs.”