This is Day Ten of a Cubsmas Advent Calendar. You can read the explanation for the project and Day One here.
The Cubs basically played three different seasons in 2023, and you can mark them by the presence and productivity of two different players. Today, I’m going to look at one of those players in depth, a guy who seemed to finally emerge in a role that was made for him: Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs closer.
I wrote about this in late September as it was becoming clear that the Cubs playoff chances were fading as Adbert was sidelined with an injury. The bottom line is that from the start of the season until Alzolay took over as the closer on June 8 the Cubs’ record was 26-36 for a .419 winning percentage. From June 9 to September 10 the Cubs went 50-31 with a .617 winning percentage, and from September 11 to the end of the season when Alzolay was sidelined the Cubs went 6-12 for an abysmal .333 win percentage. In other words, the Cubs were one of the best teams in the league with Alzolay in the closer role and one of the worst teams in the league without him there.
It seems pretty clear that this team needs a closer and only one guy really rose to the occasion in 2023. Let’s take a look at how he did it.
As a starter and a reliever, Alzolay has relied on similar pitch mixes. He throws six pitches, but primarily features his slider and lets it play off a four-seam and sinker. He’s simplified his secondary offerings since 2021, basically eliminating his curveball and only rarely throwing his changeup, while bumping his cutter usage slightly.
As you might expect, his velocity is up a tick on his offerings in a relief role because he’s able to max out his offerings in a single inning rather than trying to make it through the order multiple times. Below you can see the pitch mix and velocity per baseball savant for Alzolay for 2021 and 2023 (I excluded 2022 due to an extremely small sample size of only 13 1⁄3 innings):
You can see that each pitch is being thrown just a tick or two harder for Alzolay. He’s also featuring the slider ever so slightly more with just one inning of work to get through, but his main offerings are the same as 2021, just amplified. The other thing that really jumps out comparing his body of work in 2021 and 2023 is how much tighter his pitches were located last season as you can see below:
Perhaps the most important part of what is working for Alzolay in his new role is something that hasn’t changed much at all: he’s always had a pretty big second time through the order penalty as you can see from the table below. As a reminder, wOBA is just a fancy on-base percentage that gives batters more credit for extra base hits:
Adbert Alzolay splits: times through the order
|2021 1st TTO SP
|2021 2nd TTO SP
|2021 3rd TTO SP
|2021 1st TTO RP
|2023 1st TTO
Whatever wizardry Alzolay is able to spin from the mound, it seems like it’s always been more effective the first time batters see it. That goes a long way towards explaining why he’s so much more effective as a reliever than he is as a starter.
And make no mistake, it’s wizardry. These Pitching Ninja overlays show exactly why batters are flummoxed the first time they see Alozlay. First up, Alzolay vs. Yasmani Grandal:
Adbert Alzolay, Back Foot Slider & Front Door Two Seamer, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/AY2JOiWjbm— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 26, 2023
Next up, Alzolay vs. Nolan Arenado:
Adbert Alzolay, 87mph Slider (ball) and 97mph Sinker (backwards K), Individual Pitches + Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 29, 2023
Why you'd take that sinker. pic.twitter.com/IT66dcizAd
That combination plays at the end of a ballgame but there is one looming question hanging over the Cubs’ would-be closer in 2024: Health. Alzolay has struggled to play a full season as both a starter and a reliever now, so the Cubs would do well to make sure they add at least one arm at the back of the bullpen who is capable of closing a game should Alzolay hit the injured list in September again.
I doubt the Cubs will shop at the top of the market and add an elite closer like Josh Hader to push Alzolay into a setup role. However, it would be very much classic Jed Hoyer to add a guy like Hector Neris to the back of the bullpen. Neris threw 68⅓ innings last season with a 1.71 ERA and a 3.35 FIP and while it’s been a few years since he’s been in charge of the ninth inning, he does have 89 career saves under his belt.
Bolstering the back of the bullpen so Alzolay, Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. don’t run out of gas while trying to make a run to the playoffs has to be one of the top priorities for the Cubs this offseason. However, it’s an outstanding development to have the man in the key role established as an elite threat at the end of a ballgame. The fact that Alzolay is a homegrown talent who won’t be a free agent until 2027 makes it even better.