If you couldn’t already tell from the joy with which he pitches, one look at Adbert Alzolay‘s Twitter feed will show you the dude just radiates positivity. The overwhelming optimism and verve he displays he attacks both life and the batters who dig in against him is reminiscent of fictional soccer star Dani Rojas, whose “Football is life!” catchphrase can be heard on the incredible Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso.
Adbert Alzolay, Painted 89mph Slider…and K Skip.
PitchingNinja K strut rating: 8.8 pic.twitter.com/pFmAgGvDIH
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 2, 2021
Centered around an American college football coach who is hired by English Premier League team AFC Richmond, Lasso is as full of heart as any show I’ve seen in at least the last decade. With a little massaging, its general plot points bear striking resemblance to those taking place on the North Side of Chicago. You’ve got an owner who gains control of the team through means other than their own and who initially isn’t concerned with winning, an inexperienced gaffer, a great player being traded away, an ebullient young star emerging, and a sudden competitive turnaround.
Perhaps the general public is a bit more familiar with these tropes from Major League, understandably so, but Ted Lasso is a wee bit more contemporary and it’s just soooo good. Plus, I love the unadulterated exuberance of Rojas and the show’s title character, traits Alzolay embodies in real life. Such overwhelmingly positive vibes often come across as forced or fake, but that isn’t the case for the young righty.
It is, however, intentional. All that’s missing is a little #BaseballIsLife at the end of each tweet.
Good morning my people hope you guys a great Thursday 🙏🙏🙏.. “focus on the step in front of you, And not the whole staircase”. 🤟🏻🤟🏻🤟🏻
— Adbert Alzolay (@adbert29) June 3, 2021
“I feel like if I wake up every day feeling good, feeling happy, and I let that out, let people know you can be happy every single day, that’s a way I’ll go about my day,” Alzolay told the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan earlier this week. “If you start the day good, you’re going to have a good day for the rest of the day.”
Maybe he’ll eventually grow jaded by fame and fortune, both of which are within reach, but I sure hope not because this is the kind of player who can lift everyone up without even taking the bump. Of course, he can lift his team even higher when he pitches like the ace in waiting for a Cubs organization that has struggled for more than a decade to develop homegrown pitching.
Alzolay has been remarkably consistent over 10 starts this season, yielding three or fewer runs in each of his last nine starts and getting actual results that line up very closely with his expected stats. Were it not for being stung by the longball a few times, his 3.33 xFIP would be even closer to his 3.92 FIP, 3.83 xERA, and 3.62 ERA. Take away his 2021 debut in which Milwaukee tagged him for four runs in five innings and the numbers drop nearly half a run across the board.
Disingenuous though it may be to cherry-pick, it’s important to note that we’re talking about someone who only added his two favorite pitches to his repertoire last year. Factor in the plan to limit his innings by leveraging an extra minor league option and the occasional bullpen flex and you can understand how Alzolay might not have been completely settled out of the gate.
Since getting his feet under him, however, he’s been running with supreme confidence and attacking hitters with unexpected precision. That’s a function of both understanding and trusting his stuff, some of which is so nasty that it’s hard to believe he can find the zone with it. But by refining both his slider and two-seam, Alzolay has limited the walks to a greater extent than even his biggest supporters could have imagined.
To wit, he’s walked only 11 batters in 54.2 innings after walking 13 in 21.1 innings last season and handing out nine free passes in 12.1 innings in 2019. The last time he flashed anything close to his current 5.2% walk rate was in A-ball during the 2016 and ’17 seasons, and that was against far less disciplined hitters. That’s huge when it comes to limiting the damage on the increasingly less frequent occasions that hitters manage to do damage against him.
Alzolay is a driving force behind the about-face the Cubs have made since the start of May or thereabouts, something that shows up in more than just their record. This team looks like it’s having fun again and the increasing crowds at Wrigley are vibing with that in a big way.
“Overall as a team, right now we’re the best team in this division, to be honest,” Alzolay told Sahadev Sharma and other reporters after Wednesday’s win. “I feel like the chemistry around this team, around the hitters, the bullpen, the starting rotation — two weeks ago everything started to come together. As a team, we’re on the same page. That’s what you need to play the way we’re playing right now.”
I’m as big a fan of advanced metrics as you’ll find out there, but I also believe firmly that chemistry matters as well. That’s particularly true when you’re talking about a team that was embroiled in something like 15 one-run games in May. When the game is on the line, every little edge can be the difference between winning or losing and the Cubs have been doing a lot more of the former lately.
Even though it might be a bit of a damning compliment to say the Cubs are a fake-it-until-you-make-it success story, it does sort of feel like they may have gotten by with a little luck before everything fell into place. Then again, isn’t that the case with almost every good team? Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity and the Cubs have had plenty of opportunities to either sink or swim.
The difference over the last few weeks is that they know they can win and they’re playing as though they trust their teammates to shoulder the load. You’re not seeing every batter up there swinging for a five-run homer. Well, except for Javy Báez, but that’s nothing new. Whether it’s a reliever coming on with the bases loaded and no outs or a presumed Quad-A player being called upon to play third base every day, everyone is stepping up.
That’s a testament to David Ross‘s leadership and decision-making, both of which have been called into question since the day he was announced as the manager. I’m sure that will be the case again if we see another skid or if the bullpen finally allows two runs in a game, but the skipper is pulling all the right strings right now.
“I think we’re pretty damn good, I do,” Ross told the media Wednesday. “All that matters is our belief in here. I think these guys believe that. I think they know that whatever you want to say, the outside narrative, you’ve gotta write what you see and what you think. That’s fine by me. But the guys in the room believe in themselves and believe in each other. You see it on a daily basis.”
Now I guess we wait and see what happens if the Cubs keep this up through June and into July, at which point ownership and the front office will have some serious decisions to make.