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Deep Dive: Adbert Alzolay’s new slider

3 years agoLance Brozdowski

Adbert Alzolay’s four-inning relief effort Tuesday featured a new offering: his slider.

Entering this season, the Cubs homegrown right-handed pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay rekindled his two-seam fastball and reworked the shape of his curveball. His most recent project — changing the grip on his slider — has resulted in an offering that neutralized the Pirates’ bats. Alzolay earned a season-high 7 strikeouts, more than half on his new slider, and generated 10 whiffs when combined with his curveball.

Just by looking at a plot of Alzolay’s pitches (link), it was difficult to tell he was throwing two distinct breaking balls in 2020. He threw both sliders and curveballs between 79-84 mph, with some curveballs possessing a true 12-6 shape while others swept more across the zone and away from right-handed bats.

“The slider was getting close to [the curveball’s velocity],” Alzolay said after Tuesday’s appearance. “The hitters can see that, just having the separation between those two pitches is huge for me, I think … We’ve been working to get that grip to separate [the slider] from the curveball.”

Now Alzolay throws his slider about 3 to 4 mph harder than his curveball. Even though public stats outlets may still be combining his two pitches into one offering, the best way to distinguish the two is by looking at velocity. In Tuesday’s outing, Alzolay threw 13 sliders above 84.5 mph and 15 curveballs below 83 mph. That accounted for over 85% of his breaking pitches against the Pirates. Although some minor blending may still occur between the two pitches in the 83 to 84 mph range of velocity, they are now more distinct than they have ever been. 

For example, in Alzolay’s two appearances on September 5 and 10, all the breaking balls he threw landed in the 78-83 mph velocity band. Some were probably curveballs while others may have been sliders, but to discern which was which proved a daunting task for the naked eye (and even most public stats outlets). Not only has his new grip helped him throw his slider harder, it has also changed the movement profile.

Now that distinction is clearer, even when looking beyond the velocity of the two pitches. The statistics outlet Brooks Baseball is presently one of the only sites marking a difference between Alzolay’s new slider and his curveball. A look at the movement profile of all his pitches on a plot (link) shows how his slider moves about 3 inches less both horizontally and vertically than his curveball. But since the grip allows him to throw the pitch harder, the lower amount of total movement is not an issue (most curveballs break more than sliders).

“We got a new grip on the pitch so I can stay behind the ball longer,” Alzolay said. “There was a lot of people involved in the pitch down [in South Bend].”

Alzolay worked on the grip over the last 10 days he was down at the team’s satellite site. His interactions with the site’s two main pitching coaches, Ron Villone and James Ogden, as well as the team’s minor league coordinator, Craig Breslow, played a key role in the reworked offering that froze countless Pirates hitters. The staff in South Bend has done the same for pitchers like Jason Adam as well, who sports a gaudy 15.1 K/9 in his 11.1 innings. Both Adam and Alzolay figure to be integral pieces of a Cubs bullpen that could be called on more frequently in tight spots with the lack of off days between games in the coming 2020 postseason. Both their abilities to make an impact are due in part to the Cubs’ focus on development and progress even with the lack of a minor league season.

Alzolay’s new slider could even throw a wrinkle in his scouting report for the Cardinals and Reds hitters he faced earlier this season if the Cubs meet one of their division rivals in the playoffs. Don’t expect Alzolay’s development to slow down any time soon.

“[My slider] felt good [Tuesday],” Alzolay said. “It was working … but because that pitch is new for me I know it can get better.”

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