Coming into the 2020 season, say, back in February, I’m wondering whom we would have tabbed as the Cubs’ most likely Rookie of the Year.
Nico Hoerner is the obvious guess, though it’s easy enough to forget that he wasn’t a lock to make the team out of Spring Training back then (in fact, I would’ve bet strongly against it at the time). It was only because of pandemic ball, expanded rosters, and the lack of a minor league season that Hoerner became an obvious yes for the roster.
Outside of Hoerner, there really wouldn’t have been a great bet because the roster was so locked up with veteran every-day types. Looking around the positional group, there was no obvious hole that afforded a player to come up and shine even if there were an injury. The bullpen was always going to be loaded with pre-arb guys, newly-signed flyers, depth starters, and Craig Kimbrel. And the rotation projected to go six or seven deep before you’d even get to a rookie.
But *if* you got to that rookie, I do think the guy most of us would’ve had in our heads back then was Adbert Alzolay. I think the doubts would’ve been much less about the opportunity (again, behind Hoerner), and more about whether Alzolay could actually be an impact arm in 2020, as the Cubs figured out his long-term role. We knew Alzolay would pitch in the big leagues in 2020, but it was always pretty darn possible it was going to come purely in relief, and it was going to be part of a transition to the bullpen full-time.
Then the pandemic struck, and everything went so far up in the air that Alzolay wasn’t even included in big league camp when Spring Training 2.0 kicked off in June.
At that moment, you’d have been pretty bold to suggest he would wind up being the guy to get this nod for the Cubs from Baseball America when the season ended:
We're picking Rookies of the Year for every MLB organization.
Adbert Alzolay, Cubs: https://t.co/Lg1bHDPD04
Thomas Hatch, Blue Jays: https://t.co/yta7CWA2FH
Ryan Jeffers, Twins: https://t.co/e2u5S37YHY
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) October 5, 2020
Alzolay put in the work at South Bend, came up when the Cubs needed, and by and large performed well when given the opportunity. More than that, he was getting better and better as the season neared its conclusion thanks to the additions of a killer slider and a fantastic two-seamer. It’s incredible that a guy could add TWO pitches during his work at an alternate site this year, and then carry them into big league action so soon after – but that’s what made Alzolay’s year so impressive, even in limited duty.
On the year, Alzolay finished with just 21.1 innings pitched for the Cubs, but he posted a 2.95 ERA and a nearly matching 3.05 FIP. The walk rate was far too high at 14.3%, but the strikeout rate for a starting pitcher was an absurd 33.3%. The contact quality was sufficiently solid, too, that his expected stats at Statcast were strong (3.52 expected ERA, .279 expected wOBA – both in the top quarter of baseball among pitchers who faced at least 50 plate appearances). You extrapolate his year out over 120 to 130 innings, and you’re talking about a 3.0-WAR pitcher. I’m not saying he would pull that off in a “normal” rookie season – I’m just saying that’s how good he was.
Going forward, it’s clear Alzolay will have a shot at a rotation job coming out of Spring Training. Heck, given how different he looked once he’d mastered the two-seamer and the slider (to add to his already good four-seamer, curveball, and changeup), given the financial landscape, and given the holes in the rotation, I wouldn’t blame the Cubs for just saying, “He’s in the rotation now, full stop.”
Theo Epstein stopped just shy of saying that flatly at his season-ending presser, but the message was pretty clear: “[Alzolay] really made great strides. I want to tip my cap to the work he put in and the support he had at South Bend … the work they put in on his slider, separating his breaking balls, adding velocity to his slider, and spin. Really giving him a now-Major League weapon that he took right into some important games in the big leagues at the end of the year. Going into the year we were hoping that Adbert could develop into a Major League starter, but now we see one. I think he’s someone who is primed to slide into the rotation.”
Out of options at this point, Alzolay is making the 2021 Cubs one way or another. But the guy he showed this season is a starting pitcher. Easily. Great Cubs Rookie of the Year campaign, Adbert.