We’re in the midst of an immensely enjoyable World Series, yet my mind can’t help but fixate on the state of the 2021 Cubs. I’ve already offered my take on what a successful offseason might look like, and among other things, I’ve become entrenched in one belief: Adbert Alzolay should break camp as a member of the rotation.
Heading into the offseason the Cubs have but two surefire starters: Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. The departures of Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood, coupled with the uncertainty of bringing Jon Lester back, leave three gaping holes to fill. And while I believe the Cubs can bring back Lester on a cheap deal and sign a capable free agent without approaching the Luxury Tax (such as Kevin Gausman), I doubt they can dip into the free agent well a second time to round out the starting five.
Thus, the Cubs will be looking in-house to fill out the rotation.
What About Alec Mills?
Mills turned in a fine performance for the Cubs in 2020. Thrust into the rotation due to a freak dishwashing injury to Quintana — and remaining in the rotation with Chatwood also hitting the IL — Alec nestled into the back-end of the rotation with aplomb. While his no-hitter is certainly the highlight of the season (and his career), overall he provided a satisfactory league-average ERA (4.48), tossing 62.1 innings in 11 starts en route to a 5-5 record.
Peripherals for Mills, however, are less kind. His FIP (5.44) suggests considerable luck in 2020, but that’s just the beginning. In six of his 11 starts he surrendered four or more runs, and in three of those starts he failed to make it through four innings.
He also maintained a pitcher-friendly .233 BABIP in 2020, a number well below league-average. This may be partly explained by his ability to limit exit velocity (86.9 mph), with a slightly better-than-average hard hit rate (31.9 percent), but overall the low average on balls in play still yielded just an average (at best) starter.
2019 is, in my mind, a better barometer of Mills’ potential. While he twirled just 36 innings (he was a frequent flier between Iowa and Chicago), he did so as a long-man and spot starter (four starts, five relief appearances). His numbers paint a picture of effectiveness: 2.75 ERA (4.19 FIP), sporting a fWAR (0.4) that actually doubled his 2020 effort (0.2).
What’s particularly curious to me is that several of Mills’ peripherals (BB rate, groundball percentage, pull percentage) remained consistent between 2019 and 2020. There are two notable exceptions: Mills’ strikeout rate dropped considerably in 2020 from 2019 (18.3 percent from 27.6), and his left on base percentage also changed significantly (90.5 percent in 2019, 77.1 in 2020).
Add it all up, and you have a very capable long-man in the ‘pen that serves as your emergency/sixth starter. This is a niche role that’s difficult to fill, and Mills is the best option for the Cubs since Mike Montgomery. Not only does Mills maintain incredible value in this role, his presence also opens the door for Alzolay to have a breakout campaign in 2021.
2021 is Alzolay’s Year
To say the Cubs have been waiting for a homegrown pitching talent to become a rotation fixture would be a hilarious understatement. This is the defining critique of the Epstein/Hoyer regime, and while they’ve taken steps to fix it, we’ve yet to see the fruits of that labor.
In 2020, Adbert’s pitching line looks quite nifty in limited action: 2.95 ERA (3.05 FIP), 33.3 strikeout rate, .164 batting average against, 0.42 HR/9, 0.5 fWAR in 21.1 IP. The soon-to-be 26 year old finally showed the promise his potential has long suggested, and these numbers alone have him primed for a position in the rotation in 2021.
Yet 2020 on the whole isn’t the right approach with Alzolay. After being sent back to South Bend, Adbert tweaked his offspeed arsenal, his curveball usage giving way to a newfound slider. The results of that tweak were immediately known, evidenced by his final two outings of the season upon being recalled: 9 IP, 45.5 K%, 12.1 BB%, .138 BAA, 0.89 WHIP, 2.00 ERA, 2.64 FIP.
It’s a tiny sample size. It’s also the only sample size we have with Alzolay’s newest weapon, and the results are downright enticing. Certainly that 45.5 strikeout rate is unattainable, and that 12.1 walk rate, while an upgrade from his season rate (14.9), remains unsatisfactory. But improvement with command is attainable, both via the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure that can be utilized this offseason, as well as discovering a confidence in throwing first pitch strikes.
Alzolay utilized a four seamer (32.0 percent) and two seamer (20.2) this year, each of which maintain mid-90’s velocity. The problem? His first-pitch strike percentage (51.9) was markedly below league-average (60.0). Falling behind at that frequency places pressure on him, limits creativity with his repertoire, and allows hitters to sit on what should be an effective heater.
With a five-pitch arsenal (four seam, two seam, slider, curve, change) Alzolay not only has the ability to mix-and-match his pitches, the variety of offerings should allow him to pitch deep into games should he establish the strike zone early. Only throwing his change eight percent in 2020, as he utilizes the slider more so too should the change usage increase. His curve (33.9 percent) will still be a weapon, but a much-less utilized one as his slider gains prominence.
Given that Alzolay is under team control through 2025, his development as a full-time starter would help the Cubs compete now and during their next window of contention.
It’ll take the next step in his maturation — namely the ability to command the zone with frequency — for him to become a rotation stalwart. Still, the talent is off-the-charts; I believe the intrigue and impact will coalesce in 2021.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.
Featured Photo Credit: Quinn Harris, Getty Images
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