Adbert Alzolay proclaimed confidently in January of 2020 that it would be “The Changeup Year,” though that never came to pass. It wasn’t just the pandemic that changed Alzolay’s plans, though, it was also the emergence of a new pitch with the help of new mentors. Two new pitches if we’re being precise, but one in particular has elevated the righty from prospect to rotation mainstay.
That would be the slider, which Alzolay went from not having in his arsenal at all prior to his time at the Cubs’ alternate site to using it about 45% of the time this season. Paired with a sinker that makes up nearly 28% of his offerings, we’re very literally looking at an entirely different pitcher this year from the one we saw in previous seasons. Okay, pedants, you got me: he’s actually only between 70.4-74% different, depending on what you trust on his slider usage.
However you count it, that kind of massive shift can only be accomplished with a lot of hard work and a nigh-unlimited supply of confidence. Never lacking in the good vibes department, even Alzolay couldn’t have mustered the mental fortitude to change his approach all on his own.
Enter VP of pitching Craig Breslow and Triple-A pitching coach Ron Villone, whose contributions to Alzolay’s growth are laid out in detail by Marquee Sports Network’s Tony Andracki. Breslow gets credit for introducing the righty to what would become his go-to pitch, setting the stage for what was to come over the rest of the summer.
“[Breslow] would give me the data information that he got about the pitch and compare with other pitchers that throw the same pitch,” Alzolay explained. “And then just trusting that.”
Thing is, anyone not named Yu Darvish is going to have to spend time working on a pitch before throwing it in game action. When his teammates all declined the opportunity to play “dodge the wicked movement of Alzolay’s pitches,” known more colloquially as catch, Villone offered up his glove and his body as sacrifices to the cause.
“When people start playing catch with Adbert and start seeing his slider and his two-seamer, you start seeing fear in his teammates’ eyes,” Villone told Andracki. “Like, this thing is so nasty. It’s not that easy. I had to take a deep breath a couple times, take him in the corner and say, ‘Hey, throw it as hard as you can. Let it rip, son. Let it rip.’”
That’s not always easy for a pitcher who’s tinkering with a new pitch or grip because they may have to battle a desire to aim or guide the pitch rather than just trusting the grip to do its work. Having Villone and Breslow in his ear letting him know that it’s okay to just cut it loose and see what happens was probably bigger for Alzolay’s psychological development than anything else.
It didn’t hurt that his teammates got a little more comfortable with his new pitches as well, thereby allowing him to throw with someone other than his coach from time to time. Now the only people who get antsy when he pitches are opposing batters, whether it’s a lefty facing the possibility of a front-door two-seamer or a righty trying to fend off a slider that disappears beneath his bat.
Alzolay is still not pitching consistently at ace level just yet, but he’s shown flashes at several points that make you believe he can get there one day soon. Heck, he hasn’t even been throwing his two primary pitches for a year yet at this point. What happens when he gains even better command and knowledge of when to throw them against whom?