The Gwinnett Braves arguably have the hottest pitcher in the International League.
No, not Sean Newcomb, the recently promoted power lefty. Not prospects Lucas Sims or Patrick Weigel either, two arms who are popular among fans. Lost in the youthful renaissance is Andrew Albers, who’s in his fifth organization in as many seasons.
Albers, a 31-year-old journeyman who seemingly is simply an innings-eating placeholder for Gwinnett, is statistically their best pitcher right now.
Albers (5-1, 2.75 ERA), who played in college at the University of Kentucky, pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings Wednesday to guide Gwinnett to a 6-0 win. The start was unexpected — Albers was thrust onto the mound upon Sean Newcomb’s promotion to the majors.
“It’s one of those things where you always expect to pitch,” Albers said. “Obviously it was short notice and you have to do some shuffling around and things like that, but at the same time I was fresh coming into (Wednesday). I found out yesterday that I was going to be starting.”
A classic reclamation project, the left-hander owns a 1.47 ERA over his past three starts, including a 12 2/3 scoreless-innings streak. In 38 innings as a starter, Albers has allowed 11 earned runs and possesses a staggering 42-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
He hasn’t been asked to pitch deeply into games because Gwinnett relies on Albers’ full availability in the rotation and bullpen. He admitted it’s tricky to develop a routine with the uncertainty, but added his job is the same either way: put the team in position to win.
“Albers has been outstanding for us all season,” Gwinnett Manager Damon Berryhill said. “Only question about it is if he’s coming out of the bullpen or in the rotation. He’s just been consistently throwing strikes and done everything we’ve asked him to do, and done it well.
“It’s a plus to have a guy with his experience. Not just his experience, but the way he’s pitching … he’s been giving us wins.”
Berryhill commended Albers as a positive clubhouse influence. Albers presents a veteran option if the major league team, as expected, re-makes its pitching units by August.
“You’re always showcasing yourself, but that’s not something you worry about,” Albers said. “That’s out of your control. You worry about the things you can control, which is getting yourself prepared every day to go out and pitch, whether it’s starting or out of the pen, you’ve got to be ready to go and expect to pitch.”
The recent run isn’t unparalleled success for Albers. He broke into the majors with Minnesota as a 27-year-old rookie in 2013 after posting a 2.86 ERA in Triple-A and leading the International League in strikeouts (116). Albers threw a complete game shutout in his second career start, but his performance suffered a steep decline from there. He finished the season with a 4.05 ERA in 60 innings.
He’s thrown just 19 2/3 major league innings since.
The Twins released Albers in 2014. He joined the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization the following season. He later caught on with the Toronto Blue Jays organization and the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. Minnesota brought him back on a minor league deal in April 2016, and he pitched 17 major league innings (two starts) before returning to the free-agent market in October.
The Braves swooped in two months later. Albers said he signed because he saw an opportunity if he performs well. And he’s already exceeded any expectations.
Albers credits his swift success to an improved command, and he isn’t complaining about any good breaks.
“Fastball command,” he said. “I’ll get ahead of guys then work from there. And you know, I’ve caught some breaks along the way. They hit the ball where guys are at, and there’s been hard hit balls that find gloves instead of some bleeders that find holes. That’s kind of how the game goes sometimes. You just enjoy those rides as they come because you don’t know how long that’ll last.”