Adbert Alzolay Threw Fastball Harder, More Frequently in Electric Relief Appearance

All the talk about Adbert Alzolay‘s repertoire over the last year or so has centered on how he added a two-seam and slider to the mix at the alternate site in South Bend. He eventually grew so confident in the slider that it became his favorite pitch, making up around 40% of his offerings. When combined with the sinker, almost 70% of Alzolay’s pitches were less than a year old.

And that’s before we even mention the cutter he started throwing in June to get a little differentiation in his breaking balls.

As the season wore on, however, it became clear that his hard stuff wasn’t doing enough to keep hitters honest and set up the slider. According to FanGraphs’ runs above average metric, which measures how many runs a given pitch saves, Alzolay’s slider had a mark of 7.2 through his first five starts. The fastball, which in this case is a mix of both versions, was at -1.3 runs. You’d rather not see negative numbers, but a net of nearly six runs is solid.

In 16 subsequent starts, however, Alzolay’s fastball generated -8.0 runs while his slider was at -0.8 and his cutter was worth -1.0 runs. When nearly 90% of your repertoire is in the red, it’s probably time for a change.

That’s exactly what Alzolay did in his first appearance off the IL Wednesday night, which was also his first relief outing of the season. He came on in the 6th inning to replace Justin Steele, who had tossed five frames of one-hit baseball, and proceeded to twirl four nearly perfect innings — no runs, one hit, five Ks, no walks — with just 40 pitches.

The fastball resulted in 0.7 runs above average while the slider generated 1.2 and the cutter another 0.6 on the night. That’s that first time all season every one of his offerings graded out positively and just the third time he had no negatives (there were some zeroes in there). And the big key is that half of those fastballs were four-seamers.

There were 17 four-seamers to be exact, putting Alzolay at a season-high 42.5% that represented a nearly three-fold increase in usage from his overall average. What’s more, he threw the fastball harder (95.3 mph) than in any game this year and with less spin (2,190 rpm) than in all but one game. The velocity can be easily explained by rest and role, as he was able to empty his metaphorical tank out of the ‘pen. The spin, however, is a bit more interesting.

You would generally expect a pitch thrown harder to spin faster, unless something has changed with the grip. Of course, it’s entirely possible that this was just a fluke and that getting 120 fewer revolutions than his season average will amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things. But is it just as possible that the Cubs saw something in Alzolay’s delivery or results that had them working to make small refinements during his IL stint?

I’d like to think so. It might be something as minor as shifting the ball so that it sits differently on his fingertips than before. Perhaps he’s moving it a stitch or two in one direction or the other. It may have simply been a function of wearing his jersey unbuttoned like Patrick Wisdom and getting a different wake than before. And again, maybe the numbers stood out due to the nature of the appearance and we’ll see them fall back in line his next time out.

Still, I keep going back to something pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic about working with new acquisition Codi Heuer on his fastball design.

‘[I]t’s not about getting him and overhauling all he does,” Hottovy said. “It’s more about can we make minor, incremental changes that can really make a difference without having to do all that stuff…It’s one thing to say, ‘Here’s the grip, throw it and go.’

“That’s not what we’re shooting for. We want him to learn and understand why we’re doing it so that they can make those adjustments and understand what a certain grip will do for them.”

We’ll need to wait for his next outing to see whether any of these trends continue, but for now we can rest easy knowing Alzolay once again looked like a dominant pitcher. And yes, I realize it was against a Twins team that is just as bad as the Cubs on the season. Life’s too short to bitch and moan about things you can’t change, so I’m making it my mission to find little snatches of sunshine when and where I can over the remainder of the season.

Alzolay’s last appearance was one such beam of light and I sincerely hope there are many more to come.

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