The White Sox have a core of stars, and they made a bunch of minor-yet-brand-name moves over the winter to supplement them.
And yet somehow, the player who is most fun to watch through five games is Matt Albers of all people.
- 26.1 IP, 19 H, 5 BB, 21 K, 1 HBP
Scoreless streaks for relievers can often be misleading, though, because inherited runners can score runs, too. Albers didn't allow a run on his own tab over his last 20 games of 2015, but he did allow six of 14 inherited runners to score, including two runs when he only had to retire one batter to escape the jam. That's fine/normal, but it's not quite scoreless in feel.
Even accounting for those runs, though, what Albers is doing is impressive, especially relative to his standing. Last season, he joined the Sox on a minor-league contract, then broke his finger during the brawl with the Royals in April. He returned in July and found his groove just as the Sox were entering their season-killing tailspin, and he was overshadowed by the return of Nate Jones, who had more of a history and threw 10 mph harder.
Judging by his winter, the rest of the league wasn't terribly enamored with his streak, either. The White Sox let him explore his options, but Albers returned to the Sox on a modest one-year, $2.5 million deal in late January.
It was a no-brainer for the Sox if only to create an extra layer of defense between Daniel Webb and the 25-man roster. Even if Albers regressed to the mean the way his 89-90 mph sinker suggested was around the corner, he still threw strikes, which gave him a leg up on Charlotte's power arms. It only posed a complication with Jacob Turner, who could've been stashed in the bullpen as a long man if he pitched too well in spring training to DFA, but not well enough to start.
All of those situations resolved themselves, though. Turner struggled in spring training after a promising first outing, and he made it through waivers unclaimed. Albers regained his velocity on his sinker, averaging 93-94 mph over his first three outings. That puts him back to where he was in 2013, before a shoulder injury cost him almost the entirety of the following year.
And now he's not even letting inherited runners score. All three of his outings have opened with traffic on the basepaths, and all four runners failed to cross the plate.
April 5: Albers entered in the sixth inning with two outs, Jose Quintana's runner on second and the White Sox leading 4-2. Stephen Vogt pinch-hit for Josh Phegley, but his comebacker glanced off Albers' glove and to Jimmy Rollins, who completed the 1-6-3. Albers walks off the mound nonchalantly.
But wait! He returned to throw a scoreless seventh, stranding a two-out double by Coco Crisp by striking out Jed Lowrie. Now he's fired up.
April 7: Zach Duke created a mess by starting the inning with a walk, a wild pitch and a single. He struck out Chris Coghlan to at least put a dent in the inning, but Albers still had to come in and clean up his mess. Albers did just that, getting a pop-up and an easy groundout to first to preserve a 2-0 margin.
The White Sox broadcast cuts to him too late, but Oakland's home plate camera followed the star all the way:
April 9: In one sense, Albers inherited the lowest stakes yet -- Duke's runner on first and a four-run lead. But he faced the heart of the Cleveland order, and he had to get all three outs. That he did, with a deepish flyout and two strikeouts. He froze Carlos Santana with a sinker to end the inning, setting off his most inspired reaction to date, featuring a fist pump, self-shouting and a gum spike.
I didn't recall Albers doing this last year. Revisiting games from September, if he did have this habit, the broadcasts didn't capture it. Most of the scenes that follow Albers off the mound look like the first GIF above. Now the cameras are following him into the dugout:
If this is a new feature, it pairs well with the other enhancements, like the jump in velocity and Robin Ventura's willingness to use him for four or more outs in situations far from mop-up duty. It wouldn't surprise me if he's climbed over Jake Petricka on Ventura's trust tree, because his leverage index has risen into unprecedented personal territory. While that only means he's the third righty behind David Robertson and Nate Jones, he's still more visible than ever, and he's basking in it.