Alzolay ditches jitters, then befuddles hitters

June 26th, 2019

CHICAGO -- leaned over the railing, a white towel wrapped over his shoulders, looking out at Wrigley Field after his part in Tuesday night's game had come to a close. After returning from the mound, Cubs manager Joe Maddon made his way through the dugout and shook the rookie pitcher's hand.

The Cubs absorbed a 3-2 loss to the Braves, but Alzolay made a strong impression in the first start of his Major League career. The outing was not without its flaws, but the young right-hander took the hill sans the nerves that came with his MLB debut and showed off the repertoire that has Chicago intrigued and excited about what he might mean for the future of the rotation.

"He could be really good in the big leagues," Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. "He still needs to make the adjustments -- like all of us. But, with the confidence that he has, the intensity he has and the way he prepares before the game, it's going to take him a long way."

Alzolay allowed a first-pitch homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. in the first inning but then settled down from there and held the Braves without a hit for the remainder of his 4 2/3 innings. The 24-year-old struck out four and walked four, including three free passes to load the bases in the fifth. That is when Maddon pulled Alzolay from the game and the rookie received his second standing ovation in as many MLB appearances.

In his MLB debut against the Mets on Thursday, Alzolay hoisted his hat skyward in response to Chicago's cheers. This time, feeling more calm and less overwhelmed by the moment, Alzolay simply strolled off the field and tucked his hat under his arm as he made his way down the dugout steps.

"It feels just so nice to be here playing in this city with these crowds," Alzolay said. "It's just a blessing."

Here is a look at the three-pitch arsenal Alzolay put on display in his first career start:


A little more than a week ago, Theo Epstein sat in the visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium and the Cubs president of baseball operations sung the praises of Alzolay's breaking ball. In his recent outings for Triple-A Iowa, the young righty was not only commanding the pitch but using it to generate a surplus of swings and misses.

"His curveball's been as good as I've ever seen it," Epstein said.

During Alzolay's MLB debut, perhaps due to the nerves that come with experiencing the big leagues for the first time, the right-hander struggled to show off that high-caliber curve. Alzolay showed the ability to adjust, leaning more on his changeup as his main out pitch and mixing in the breaking ball as needed.

On Tuesday, Alzolay's curveball lived up to Epstein's assessment.

It was on display in the second inning, when he struck out Austin Riley with the breaking pitch on a 2-2 count. Per Statcast, the curveball to Riley had a spin rate of 3,163 rpm, which is elite-level rotation. He averaged 3,061 rpm on the 12 curves he threw against Atlanta. For perspective, only four MLB pitchers with a minimum of 100 curves thrown this year have averaged at least 3,000 rpm.

"It was way better than the first day," Contreras said. "His curveball was really good. He was throwing it for a strike and throwing for chase. He struck out a couple people with the curveball, too. He's going to be good."


Having a third pitch that can get Major League hitters out is how pitchers emerge as starters rather than eventually being sent to the bullpen. For Alzolay, the changeup has been an ongoing project throughout his development.

Since Alzolay joined the Cubs, that third pitch has been more of a true secondary weapon.

"I didn't expect to throw it that much," Alzolay admitted.

The off-speed pitch was critical in his successful debut against the Mets, and it was essential in quieting the Braves’ lineup into the fifth. Overall, Alzolay threw 27 changeups and generated five swings and misses with the pitch. In the first inning, the righty got Freddie Freeman into a 1-2 count and then sent a changeup that tailed low and away to elude the slugger's bat.

"For us to gain confidence in something, you have to practice, you have to execute it, you have to use it in the game," Contreras said. "I think pitching is like hitting. If you want to try something, you have to do it in the game and you have to try no matter what. So, for him to be able to throw the changeup for a strike and strike out people, it's really good, especially at his age."

Alzolay said his trust in the pitch is indeed growing.

"For sure, for sure," Alzolay said. "I'm feeling really confident in throwing the pitch in any count. Tonight, I threw it a couple times behind in the count. I got a good result after that, so I just will keep throwing it."


Back in January, Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy headed out to the team's complex in Arizona and watched Alzolay throw off a mound. They also saw each other at Cubs Convention, and Hottovy decided to play catch with the young pitcher inside the cage at Wrigley Field.

"I thought I was just going to wear it off my face," Hottovy said with a laugh, "because he has such a short arm and it gets on you."

Alzolay's fastball has life to it and everything else -- that trap-door changeup and high-spin curve -- works off that pitch. As Hottovy explained, when Alzolay can command the heater, especially high in the strike zone, then that opens up different ways to use the chase pitches. Against the Braves, the right-hander averaged 94.7 mph across the 47 four-seamers he fired, topping out at 96.3 mph.

The Braves fouled off 17 of Alzolay's heaters and whiffed four times. One of those swings and misses came via Dansby Swanson, who could not connect on a 2-2 fastball in the third inning. Hottovy said Alzolay's fastball will sometimes have a little cut at the finish, but the one to Swanson featured a slight fade to miss the swing's path.

The hope for the Cubs is that Alzolay develops into the first true homegrown impact pitcher of Epstein's tenure in Chicago. When Alzolay tired into the fifth inning -- the pitcher has not logged more than 87 pitches this season -- it was a reminder of his youth and how long the road ahead is for the rookie.

"Listen, he's been injured in the past. He's coming back," Maddon said. "You've got to be real sensitive to the number of pitches and the workload you put on him, because you can see how good he's going to be."