Adbert Alzolay's Rough Night, Unique Slider-Reliance, and Continued Development

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Adbert Alzolay’s Rough Night, Unique Slider-Reliance, and Continued Development

Chicago Cubs

If Zach McKinstry had let his bat dip an extra centimeter, or if Javy Báez had made a better throw, maybe Adbert Alzolay grinds his way through five innings of one or two-run ball last night and we talk about it entirely differently. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that the Dodgers ultimately did plate six runs in the decisive second inning last night, but I do appreciate that it makes the discussion of the issues we were seeing with Alzolay last night a little smoother to get into. It was a rough night for the young righty, regardless of what the Dodgers were able to do with his pitches.

Alzolay was charged with four earned runs over his three innings of work (and two unearned runs on a Cody Bellinger homer that followed a two-out Báez throwing error). He allowed five hits, three walks, and hit a batter. He threw just 40 strikes out of his 67 pitches, and got just three whiffs on the night. His called-strike-plus-whiff rate (CSW) was just 21%, which is quite low (he’d been near 30% this year, a top 30 starting pitcher).

Here’s how David Ross described Adbert Alzolay’s rough outing, and it all sounds quite right to me ( “[He] just wasn’t sharp. It looked like his command was off. I just felt like his rhythm, in general, synching up his mechanics just leading to sporadic command. [His] slider really didn’t look like it had a lot of shape to it, either. He was battling himself out there … but he just wasn’t able to find it.”

The dual problems with Alzolay’s slider were evident, as Ross suggests, in both a lack of typical movement (spin rate was normal, vertical drop was normal, but horizontal movement was way down), and lack of competitive sliders:

(via Baseball Savant)

Even when the slider was around the strike zone, it rarely seemed to follow its intended course. And with the Dodgers able to take the slider out of consideration, they absolutely feasted on his fastballs, averaging 102.8 mph in exit velocity on the four-seamer, and 101.8 mph on the sinker. And, of course, it was an elevated inside slider that got crushed for the grand slam. The pitch was supposed to be down and away.

Because of the success of his slider over the past 12 months, Alzolay has become uniquely reliant on the pitch. Just one pitcher in all of baseball throws his slider more often than Alzolay’s 41.9%, and no other starter is above 36.5%. (Ironically, that other pitcher is his opponent from last night, Clayton Kershaw, who throws the slider a whopping 47.3% of the time this year. Kershaw throws the slider in a couple different shapes, though, and pairs it with his signature curveball and a still-solid fastball to create three different velocity tiers that all tunnel together. And, of course, he has superlative command nearly every time out.)

So on a night when Alzolay doesn’t have the feel for the slider, he will have to learn to work with his other pitches. On the bright side, not too many starters have five pitches in their arsenal, but on the less bright side, it has become clear over the past year that Alzolay has lost something with his changeup and his curveball. Not only does he almost never throw them anymore, but when he does, they aren’t competitive pitches. I suspect they’ve been gameplanned out a bit, and he might not be able to recover them in-season. His four-seamer, sinker, and slider will definitely still play as his mix, but (1) he’ll have less ability to survive when he’s missing one of them (especially the slider), and (2) he won’t be the best version of himself.

All that said, I will remind you (and myself!) that this is still very much a developmental year for Alzolay, given his limited pro game action the last few years. We want him to get wins for the Cubs right now, of course, but this is all him learning and growing and developing on the fly. A game like last night sucks for 2021, but it might help Alzolay as part of the evolution process in the years ahead.

That’s just a dude at a keyboard talking, of course, because it sounds a bit like Alzolay doesn’t quite agree with me ( “To be honest, this one in particular, I just want to trash it and move on. I feel in my personal opinion, there are no good takeaways that I can take from this game. My body was completely out of rhythm today. I couldn’t find it. [I] just have to move on from this one and keep working for the next one …. I was feeling fine [physically]. Overall, everything was good. I just couldn’t find my rhythm in the game. I feel that my body was super slow to the home plate. I was throwing everything. I just couldn’t find the rhythm.”

Fair enough. Maybe the whole set of mechanics and tempo and kinesthetic chain were all off, and he wasn’t able to recover them in-game (as opposed to it being a slider-specific issue). Consider that the movement on his four-seamer – by the data, at least – was also way off from usual. It was dropping more than usual and running laterally much more than usual (i.e., behaving too much like his sinker). So I’m sure he’s right that it wasn’t just a matter of not having the slider available. Maybe everything was a mess.

But either way, there will be nights like that, too, and I still have to believe there will be some value in having experienced it now, for the purposes of recognition and adjustment in the future. Heck, there’s probably value for the Cubs in having the performance on video for breaking down the mechanics. The slider is still a helluva good pitch, and I’m fine with him being heavily reliant on it going into the future – it has often served him very well! But the arm talent and adaptability are clearly so very high for Alzolay that I think we can hope for even more from him in the long-term future, and that will necessarily involve diversifying the pitches a touch more, even if only to give himself a better chance on the nights when things are off.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.