Adbert Alzolay sits just outside the top 20 MLB saves leaders this season, an eclectic group that includes three former Cubs, a rapper-turned-actor who has the same name as a catcher, and a bad-boy movie star who’s making good on his role in Major League. For fun, can you name the players referenced there? I’ll provide the answers at the end.
In any case, Alzolay’s 15 saves don’t look all that impressive on paper until you start digging into the when and how of them. He didn’t earn his first save until May 6, his 13th appearance of the season, and it was 24 more days before he earned his second. It should be noted that the Cubs won just 10 games in May, the only month this year in which they’ve had a losing record.
Pretty amazing, right? They went 10-18 that month and have played 12 games over the rest of the season. Just treading water would have them in first place, so it’s easy to see how they can continue to surge past the Reds and Brewers. Part of that is being able to win tight games, which they’ve been doing at a much better rate since mid-June.
As of May 31, the Cubs were 4-11 in one-run games even after beating the Rays in two of three that all had the slimmest of margins. David Ross was juggling his back-end guys and there weren’t many opportunities to go around, so the entire team had only four saves prior to Alzolay getting his first. Mark Leiter Jr. had kind of a tentative grasp on the closer’s role for a while and picked up three saves from May 5 through June 2.
That date is very significant because it’s my birthday, but it also marked both the Cubs’ fourth one-run game in a row and Alzolay’s ascension to permanent 9th-inning wizard. It’s no coincidence that the Cubs have gone 8-2 in those tight contests since. What’s funny about that June 2 performance is it was probably the best of Leiter’s career as he struck out Juan Soto, Manny Machado, and Jake Cronenworth in order, all swinging, to preserve a 2-1 win.
The Cubs knew that kind of lights-out performance wasn’t sustainable from a splitter specialist who dominates lefties, so, with Michael Fulmer and Julian Merryweather just barely in the circle of trust, Alzolay kind of earned the spot by default. He took the bump for the team’s next save chance on June 9 and worked a clean inning in San Francisco, then held the Orioles scoreless eight days later. It was then 17 days until his next shot, a very rocky outing in Milwaukee on July 4 that the Cubs managed to win in extras.
That was Alzolay’s first and only blown save. He bounced back the very next game to start a run of 11 straight successful save conversions, tops in MLB over that time. It took him two months to get the first four, now he’s almost tripled that number in just over half the time. And he’s doing it with the same resilience he showed by climbing back in the saddle after being bucked off by the Brewers.
Most other closers strike out more batters, get more grounders, and boast a better ERA than Alzolay. Even during this recent hot stretch, his box score results aren’t eye-popping. But one thing he’s done as well as anyone is avoid walks. He has just one free past against 15 strikeouts over 14.1 innings, so he’s not hurting himself. Leadoff hits in each of his last two outings? No biggie, he’ll just buckle down finish things.
The passion he displays is unmatched, and that’s the kind of fire you love to see from a dude who clearly relishes having the ball in big moments. This certainly wasn’t his preferred path when he broke in as a primary starter, but Alzolay has clearly embraced it. All that stuff aside, the real proof that he’s a full-time closer now can be seen in his performance in non-save situations.
Since July 5, he has allowed four earned runs on 12 hits with two homers. All of the runs and six of those hits — including both homers, of course — came in contests that were lopsided at the time. Alzolay thrives on adrenaline and he truly enjoys being in the spotlight, so maybe he needs a little motivation to stay sharp. That’s not about being a diva, it’s just how he channels his energy and feeds off of the crowd and the moment.
We’ve talked a lot about the starting rotation, and that’s still something the Cubs need to keep working on, but having Alzolay at the back end to slam the door will be huge down the stretch.