Adbert Alzolay is no stranger to shining on a big stage, whether it was his electric Cubs debut or the red tuxedo jacket he rocked for CubsCon’s opening ceremony. He’s not flashy to the point of being ostentatious, it’s just a natural expression of a personality so big that he had to doff his cap while exiting the mound at Wrigley for the first time.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) January 18, 2020
One of the first things you pick up when you sit down to talk with Alzolay is that he’s so…I think authentic is the right word. Maybe that’s a Freudian slip related to NBC Sports Chicago’s Authentic Fan promos, but it still feels accurate because the 24-year-old righty demonstrated the kind of candor and joy you don’t often find in a complete stranger.
It probably didn’t hurt that I opened things up with a question about his impeccable fashion sense.
“I always like to be looking good, so last year we went to LA for a vacation, me and my fiance, and I was like, ‘You know what, let’s go shopping. I’m gonna get something cool for the Convention. I’m gonna look fresh for that.’
“We went to the mall, we started looking at things and then I saw that red suit and I was like, ‘You know what, that’s the one. That’s a winner.'”
That’s exactly what everyone watching Alzolay perform in front of a packed house at Wrigley on June 20 said when they saw him pitch. His fastball touched 97 mph and his curveball laughed at physics as he struck out five Mets in four innings. But the most exciting aspect of his performance was the elusive changeup that graded out as his best offering of the evening.
“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 felt throwing my changeup.”
Statcast agreed with his assessment of those 13 offspeed pitches, three of which drew swinging strikes and another four of which were called strikes. For the sake of comparison, he only got four whiffs on 44 combined fastballs and curves. What’s more, six of those changes were thrown to righties and seven to lefties. Having the confidence to throw what had been a non-plus pitch that frequently at all, let alone as often as he did to like-handed hitters in his first MLB appearance, is just…damn.
Trouble is, that pitch still hasn’t developed into a real go-to weapon and it would flat-out disappear at times. Along with his inability to stay healthy over the last two seasons, that lack of a third offering is a big part of the reason the Cubs appear to be leaning toward using Alzolay primarily out of the bullpen this season. But that doesn’t mean he’s planning to take any focus away from the change.
“I said it last night too, it’s gonna be the Changeup Year,” Alzolay declared at Cubs Convention. “I’ve been working really, really hard on it because I know that’s a game-changing pitch right there. My changeup has the same rotation like…it looks like my fastball, just drops at the end.”
It may sound too simple, but one of the most integral requirements to having a strong changeup is just having the confidence to throw it. As you can probably tell, Alzolay lacks for nothing in that category. When it comes to being able to repeat his grip and delivery game to game and inning to inning in order to maintain maximum deception and movement, however, he’s encountered trouble. A small tweak may help with that moving forward.
“Before, I was going two-seamer (grip),” Alzolay explained. “But now I moved it, so I’m trying to keep this finger right here [indicating index finger placement] and these two fingers right on top of the seams right here [middle and ring fingers in more of a four-seam grip]. So when I release the ball, it has the same rotation as my fastball.”
If you’re having a little trouble visualizing that description, we got the whole thing on video so you can see exactly what he means. This is just a brief clip, but you can find the interview in its entirety at the conclusion of the post.
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Using a modified four-seam grip on the change should help Alzolay in more ways than one, since it should allow him to develop familiarity quickly while better disguising the pitch. At the risk of providing rudimentary information you really don’t need, much of the changeup’s effectiveness comes from hitters thinking it’s a fastball and getting out in front of it. The movement is important as well, whether it fades or tumbles or whatever, since that can create misses even if the velocity alone doesn’t deceive a batter.
As he showed in that appearance against the Mets, the offspeed stuff really plays off of the high heat Alzolay likes to pump. Add in the breaking ball and he’s got two plus pitches that can carry him even if the third continues to come and go as it pleases. Neither he nor the Cubs are content with such a limited repertoire, of course, which is why Alzolay has worked so hard to get the changeup to where it needs to be. The only way to know for sure is to see it in action, but the initial self-assessment is good.
“It’s been looking even better than last year, so hopefully it’s gonna be a game-changer.”