Did Adbert Alzolay Quietly Develop a Better Cutter Late in the Year?

Some things we know about Adbert Alzolay’s 2021 season: he owned righties, he struggled against lefties, he was exceptional in short bursts, and he wore down as he got into the middle innings. Anecdotally, then, it was pretty easy to see his late-season burst out of the bullpen (1.40 ERA, 1.98 FIP) as just kinda the combination of that stuff: better match-ups in shorter doses, so of course he was great. He could always do that. It’s just that he got a chance to do it for a month, and he cruised. (Note: I originally wrote this post in late December, but because of the holiday timing, I wanted to give it a bump for those who missed it. I found it very interesting!)

That’s undoubtedly all a factor in his bullpen success late in the year, but I have been wondering if we missed anything else. Specifically, a little something has been gnawing at me: in September, Alzolay held lefties to a mere .219/.265/.344 slash line, with a manageable 1.0 HR/9, a whopping 29.4% K rate, and a 5.9% BB rate. Lefties. He did that against lefties.

There is, of course, a huge caveat here, and it’s sample size. That was against just 34 total batters faced, and there could easily be so much noise. HOWEVA, over the same span, he faced only 41 righties! So right away, we can throw out at least one of the facile explanations for his success in September out of the bullpen. It wasn’t just about match-ups. Might there have been a little match-up massaging going on in the timing of his entrances and exits, and the opponents he faced? Sure. Of course. But it’s hard to call it a major factor when you look at the data, and consider that his biggest wart was performance against lefties.

As for short bursts, well, sure there’s some of that, but keep in mind, Alzolay was being used as a bulk guy in September: all but one of his eight appearances was for more than an inning. Two or three innings is still a shorter burst than a full-on start, so sure, there’s a factor here. But again, the data doesn’t support the idea that Alzolay’s success in September was SOLELY about better match-ups in shorter bursts.

OK, so what am I getting at? Well, I have to be careful here because that sample size thing is legit. It’s not a caveat you hand wave away, and it’s the reason you can’t say – regardless of what you find – that Alzolay has “figured lefties out.” Instead, this is merely an exploration into what might have changed for him, and what we might hope to see from him in early 2022.

Here’s what I started looking at: Alzolay’s cutter.

I didn’t choose that out of thin air, since we know he started deploying it midseason in an effort to neutralize lefties – it was a major talking point! – and it had mixed results at the time in his starts. So I started poking around Statcast some more to see if I could pick up on anything.

Among the things I noticed: Alzolay had initially used the pitch a ton for a few outings, must’ve seen poor results or wasn’t feeling it (the hard contact did climb), and then it was used far less heading into August. It wasn’t quite scrapped, but it was definitely not a primary offering. Then Alzolay went on the Injured List in mid-August with a hamstring issue, and returned to the Cubs in early-September out of the bullpen. His cutter usage rapidly climbed, and nobody was hitting it for crap. It was getting way more whiffs, too. In that very small sample, the results looked fantastic. Of note, he was throwing the pitch about 1 to 1.5 MPH faster there in September out of the bullpen than he was midseason in the rotation, frequently giving it 5+ MPH of separation from his slider, instead of 3 to 4.

So here’s the question: did Alzolay figure out something with the mechanics/grip/shape on his cutter that made it (1) a little higher velocity, and (2) more successful? Or, is Alzolay simply able to throw the cutter with more velocity out of the bullpen, and it performs better at a higher velocity? History with pitchers who are on this bubble tells us it’s more likely that Alzolay can just pick up a little more velocity out of the bullpen, and that explains most of the success. But I wonder. It’s not as if a 91 MPH cutter would be TOTALLY OUTLANDISH for a starting pitcher. Some guys do it.

Either way, you could look at all this and conclude that Alzolay’s cutter is going to play better at a higher velocity, and you would thus want to hope it is something he could do in a starting role to ameliorate some of those troubles against lefties. Again, though, I’d preach caution. These samples are all so small. Everything I’m saying here is true and based on the data, but it could still be flukey stuff where a guy with fantastic stuff was simply feeling good and getting good results overall late in the year when he knew he was going in for only a couple innings at a time.

Don’t get me wrong: I *want* it to be that he and the Cubs figured out something with his cutter. That’d bode incredibly well for 2022, especially for a guy with as much pitch diversity and natural velocity as he has. But I don’t think we can actually draw any conclusions yet. We can only tee this up as something to watch closely in Spring Training.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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