Practice makes perfect, or so they say. But the thing about practice is that it can never really emulate the real thing, which is what makes debuts so tricky. The additional adrenaline from that first experience can cause an otherwise calm athlete to lose all sense of composure. Fastballs gain velocity and lose direction, breaking balls can spin out control.
Except that in some cases, the added pressure on the diamond produces gems. Whether it’s the bigger venue or the additional crowd noise, the best players are able to buckle down and actually improve their focus. That was the case Thursday night at Wrigley when a heralded rookie made his debut.
Adbert Alzolay came into the game with a good deal of momentum, having dominated Triple-A opponents over his last several starts for the Iowa Cubs. But he also carried the expectation of hype, since he likely would have debuted last season had a lat injury not forced a mid-season shutdown.
Called up to work as a piggyback starter and potential fill-in down the road, Alzolay wasted no time getting right to it in relief of Tyler Chatwood. The 24-year-old worked quickly, immediately taking his set position after receiving the ball back from Willson Contreras.
“I don’t like to let the hitters think about what is coming,” Alzolay said after the game.
Even had he slowed down a little, the Mets might still have been lost. Though he did show some nerves when he first got out there, Alzolay quickly settled in and started sequencing his pitches and hitting his spots with the precision of a seasoned vet. He may have gotten a little rattled after allowing a home run to Todd Frazier, though I think we’ll allow him that one mistake.
“When I looked at the hitter, the first hitter,” Alzolay said, “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything is coming true right now. The thing I always dreamed as a kid is just coming true.'”
If you watch the video and listen to Alzolay describing his evening, his accent might lead you believe he’s talking about his “heater.” And since he’s got an electric fastball that touches 97 mph, the context kind of sets you up to expect him to talk about it.
But as good as his fastball looked, it wasn’t his best pitch Thursday night. Nor was the darting curveball that messed with the Mets’ timing and eye level. As Alzolay explained afterwards, his best pitch was the one he’s been working to develop over the past few seasons.
“The key today was the pitch that everyone is hoping comes through,” Alzolay said. “[Not] my fastball, [not] my breaking ball, it was the changeup. Today was the best day ever that I feel throwing my changeup.
“I was throwing it against righties, against lefties, just striking out people with changeup. It was amazing.”
Sure enough, the change graded out highest Thursday night, generating an exceptional score of 9.00 runs saved per 100 pitches. And he threw it enough that its overall score of 1.2 runs saved far outstripped the fastball/curve combo for which he’s better known.
MLB’s live gamecast classified some of Alzolay’s offerings as sliders, though that may have simply been a matter of him cutting loose a firmer curveball. Or it could have been the change, since the movement on his offspeed pitch was a little sharper with less tumble than you’d expect. It was hard to tell watching it, so you can just imagine what the hitters were thinking.
Statcast had Alzolay at 13 changeups, three of which drew swinging strikes — he only got three whiffs on the four-seam and curve combined — and four of which were called strikes. Just as he told the media, six of those changes were thrown to righties and seven to lefties. Having the confidence to throw that high a percentage to like-handed hitters in his first MLB appearance is just…damn.
What happens from here is anyone’s guess, but it’s obvious — and has been for some time — that Alzolay has the stuff to succeed at the highest level. And if he can continue throwing the changeup with anywhere near the effectiveness he showed Thursday night, he can hold down a rotation spot for years to come. That said, his more immediate future is probably in the bullpen, where he can really cut it loose while continuing to hone his approach.
But wait, does this mean we have to stop complaining about how the Cubs can’t develop pitching?