Adbert Alzolay Slides into Bullpen Role with Nasty New Pitch

Adbert Alzolay looked like Yu Darvish in more ways than one Tuesday night, showcasing a nasty breaking ball he’d only recently tweaked and then correcting Pitching Ninja about it. The young righty piggybacked lefty José Quintana, who served as the opener in his first appearance back from the IL, to give the Cubs an effective 1-2 punch and perhaps offer fans a preview of the postseason.

Alzolay’s limited usage has been at least mildly curious, especially after GM Jed Hoyer said last December that they expected him to have an impact in 2020. And before you go pointing out that a lot changed between then and the start of the season, I’ll direct you to more of Hoyer’s quotes.

“I have no doubt that he can contribute to our team next year,” Hoyer said. “In what role, I don’t know yet. But I think roles are a little bit more fluid in baseball now pitching-wise. It could be as a reliever, starter, multi-inning reliever — who knows. But he’s gonna have an impact on our team. I have no doubt about that.”

That the Cubs didn’t try to force Alzolay into a veteran rotation isn’t surprising in the least, but not adding him to the roster as a long man after Quintana’s thumb injury raised eyebrows. He didn’t make his season debut until August 19 and served mainly as the extra man for doubleheaders at that point, but this latest performance may have finally solidified his role as the Cubs head to the playoffs.

I say “finally” because it’s been almost three years since I wrote that Alzolay might be exactly what the Cubs need in the bullpen and I’ve been clamoring for them to use him in a more permanent relief role ever since. Apologies if the note I just tooted on my own horn sounded a little flat, that wasn’t my intent. Rather, it’s about watching the Cubs cycle through hordes of low-ceiling bargain relievers in the hopes that one will pan out.

There’s plenty of time to let Alzolay develop as a starter if that’s what the organization feels is best, particularly if their spendthrift ways dictate cheap rotation options next season, but what’s best right now is a lights-out reliever. That was true even before Rowan Wick was lost for the remainder of the season and likely the playoffs, now it’s imperative. But enough of my petty toldya-so, let’s talk about how Alzolay transformed a pitch almost overnight to force himself onto the playoff roster.

He knew something had to change after his previous outing, a forgettable start against the Reds in which he allowed three runs on three hits and two walks. Even worse, he registered only two strikeouts over 3.2 innings, his lowest total for any outing of more than one inning. After already working diligently to perfect a two-seamer this year at South Bend, Alzolay has now added a slider to the mix.

Statcast hasn’t yet figured out that the new breaking ball isn’t a curve, and they weren’t the only ones fooled.

According to Brooks Baseball, Alzolay threw 14 sliders out of 63 pitches (22.22%) Tuesday night to go with 18 curveballs. Statcast has him at 32 curves, so I’m willing to bet we’ll see an adjustment over at Baseball Savant by the next time he pitches at the very latest. That’s what happened with the two-seam, which was listed as a four-seam until shortly after we wrote about it.

Damn, there goes that horn again.

Alzolay said after the game that he’s put in a lot of work at the alternate site since that Reds start to develop the slider, tweaking the grip under the tutelage of pitching director Craig Breslow and other pitching coaches. The results were obvious, as the pitch generated distinctly different movement and was thrown harder his curveball.

But what really set the new breaking pitch off was the way Alzolay tunneled it with his two-seam, which you can see below. Pirates hitters were essentially trying to hit a Plinko chip and just hoping they guessed correctly on which way it would bounce.

As a result, Alzolay got a higher percentage of swings on the slider (78.57) than on any other pitch he threw more than once. Even better, his whiff percentage on the slider (42.86) was nearly twice as high as on the curve (22.22) and led to just one ball in play on the ground. Those results will work, my friends.

But before we all get carried away here and start thinking we can expect this from Alzolay every time out, I should note that he got similarly excellent results from his changeup in his MLB debut against the Mets last season. He also told CI this past January that 2020 would be “the changeup year” after he altered the grip on it, yet he threw the offspeed pitch just once against the Pirates.

Some of that could just be the scouting report or how he was feeling in that particular situation, we may never know for sure. The point is that one game can’t tell us whether or not a pitch is legit. What we know for certain, however, is that Alzolay is capable of reshaping his repertoire and adding new wrinkles almost in real-time. That sets him up very well for the immediate future and could strengthen his case for the rotation down the road.

The knock on Alzolay in the past was that he only had the fastball and curve with a spotty change. Even if the latter pitch doesn’t come around with the consistency he’d like, adding the two-seam and slider gives him at least four big-league offerings. So while I maintain that coming out of the ‘pen lets him cut the fastball loose a little more and might make the secondaries sharper, a wider array of pitches certainly helps when turning a lineup over.

With the Cubs locked into a playoff spot and a question about who the third starter will be, then with no rest days should they reach subsequent rounds, having a long man to give multiple innings will be huge. After adding the slider to pair with his new two-seam, Alzolay might be one of the Cubs’ most important arms come the end of September.

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