As Adbert Alzolay got to the end of a longer-than-anticipated rehab process last season, the obvious course of action for a return became him taking on a bullpen role.
That allowed him to prove that, after months of recovering from a right lat strain suffered during a bullpen session prior to spring training, he was healthy enough to pitch against big league competition before the year was over. And at the same time, it allowed him to get on the mound without worrying about needing to cover innings as a starter.
“For me, that was my main thing,” Alzolay said during an exclusive sit-down interview with CHGO. “I was like, ‘I don’t care if I throw only five innings or 10 innings or whatever, but I need to finish healthy and I need to finish the year up there in the big leagues.’ The rehab process was a little slow, but as soon as we started ramping up, getting off the mound, my arm started feeling better.
“We just pushed it a little bit more and we pushed it a little bit more, and I was able to to get out of rehab as soon as possible and I was able to go to Chicago for the last three weeks of the season.”
That he did, as Alzolay made his season debut on Sept. 17 and pitched to a 3.38 ERA, a 0.83 WHIP and a 12.8 K/9 in 13 2/3 innings across six relief outings. Obviously, that’s a small sample size. But it does provide a bit more evidence of how Alzolay may best be used on the Cubs’ pitching staff moving forward.
Overall in his career, Alzolay has pitched 172 2/3 innings. Of those innings, 130 have come as a starting pitcher, and the other 42 2/3 have come out of the bullpen. The differences in his pitching role splits are telling.
As a starter, Alzolay has recorded a 5.19 ERA, a 9.28 K/9, a 2.71 BB/9, a 1.254 WHIP and a .770 OPS. Meanwhile, as a reliever, those same numbers stand at a 2.32 ERA, an 11.60 K/9, a 1.35 BB/9, a 0.961 WHIP and a .555 OPS.
It’s tough to know for sure that Alzolay would thrive in a bullpen role considering he hasn’t even reached 50 total innings out of the ‘pen since making his debut on June 20, 2019. However, the success he’s had in that smaller sample helps project a successful future as a reliever for Alzolay.
Yes, he came up as a starter, and he may still want to be in the rotation some day. But for now, he believes he can pitch well in whichever role the Cubs give him.
“I have proved that I can go seven innings,” Alzolay said. “I have proved that I can go two or I can go one inning or I can go four out of the bullpen. And I have pitched late in games, too. So, I feel that with the stuff I have, I can do all of those three things.”
Still, there’s one that gives him a little more juice than the others.
“Throwing the ninth inning,” Alzolay said with a smile. “I feel that that can be huge.”
So, the question has to be asked: Could Alzolay become the new Cubs closer?
It’s not a question that can fully be answered before he really gets a shot in that role (he has one career save opportunity that came in a four-inning relief outing on Sept. 1, 2021). But one thing that may work in his favor are his platoon splits.
Throughout his career, Alzolay has recorded pretty extreme splits when pitching against righties versus when pitching against lefties. Though those splits were much more comparable in his limited time in 2022, it can’t be assumed that Alzolay has completely fixed the issues he’s had throwing to left-handed hitters in the past.
That’s why a backend relief role does make sense. Teams with the ability to do so can set lefty-heavy lineups to face Alzolay when he starts. But if he’s instead coming out for a ninth-inning save situation, there’s a higher likelihood of that pocket of hitters featuring righties. Then, opposing managers would have play around with their bench bats to find better matchups.
So, in theory, Alzolay’s problems against lefties (if they still exist) should be minimized in a closer’s role.
He also has the type of repertoire that could certainly work well in the back end of the bullpen.
In 2022, he recorded a whopping 70.4 percent whiff rate with his slider (he even said in late September that he was throwing a variation of it with more depth against lefties, with some success). He also averaged 94.8 and 94.5 mph with his four-seamer and his sinker, respectively — and if he’s entering the game for just one inning with his adrenaline at its peak, that speed could definitely tick up a bit, too.
“You don’t need to get 18 or 20 outs in an outing,” Alzolay said. “So, for me, just having that mentality to go out there as a reliever and then attack, attack, attack all the time is a really cool thing to do.”
So, you can absolutely see a scenario in which he prospers as the team’s closer if given the opportunity.
But the thing is, this could very well be a moot discussion once the season starts.
Manager David Ross didn’t place a high priority on naming a closer in 2022. And had it not been for David Robertson’s performance earning him the de facto closer job, it likely would’ve continued to be a committee throughout the year.
The back end of the bullpen will look different this upcoming April than it did at the beginning of last season, so it’s possible Ross reverts back to bringing in a “closer” based on matchups instead of committing to one specific ninth-inning arm. That would a potential road block standing in Alzolay’s way of becoming the Cubs’ full-time closer.
Regardless, knowing how Alzolay operates, that won’t be something he’s worried about once players report to spring training next month. Instead, he’ll be focused on building up for whatever role the coaching staff has him in come Opening Day.
“For me, I’m going to be out there every single day whenever I need to pitch,” Alzolay said, about what fans could expect out of him in 2023. “Out of the bullpen, whenever, I’m just going to give my 100 percent all the time.”