Dansby Swanson’s Wicked Two-Seam, ‘Fixing’ Adbert Alzolay’s Broken Breaking Balls

One of the first things you teach young kids when it comes to fielding and throwing a baseball is to orient it with a four-seam grip. Not that it always works out that way, of course, because kids are…well, they’re kids. And even as players mature, certain situations require a throw to be made without time or ability to grip the ball properly.

But when we’re talking about the defending back-to-back NL Gold Glove winner handling a routine grounder from a guy with third-percentile sprint speed, making a clean throw shouldn’t be an issue. So when J.D. Martinez hit a harmless ball to Dansby Swanson in the bottom of the 6th, it should have been the second out of what would otherwise have been an uneventful 1-2-3 inning. Instead, Swanson uncorked a two-seamer that could have ended up as a Pitching Ninja highlight, complete with a Patrick Wisdom sword over at first base.

That gives Swanson a pair of throwing errors in the last five games, which isn’t necessarily alarming in and of itself. When combined with a .234 average and nearly 28% strikeout rate, however, it could be evidence that he needs a little break. That’s easier said than done for a guy who prides himself in playing every single game for which he’s healthy, so Craig Counsell may need to find another way to help his shortstop hit the reset button.

“It’s a play that Dansby makes and it’s a play he’s gotta make and he just didn’t make it,” Counsell said matter-of-factly after the game.

That error came with the score tied 1-1 and increased the Mets’ win probability to 57.7%, though the odds dropped a few points when Jeff McNeil flied out to left. Tyrone Taylor‘s single bumped them up to 56.5% and two pitches later the odds shot to 90.5% when DJ Stewart deposited an Adbert Alzolay cutter into the right field seats. It was the fifth homer Alzolay has allowed in 12.2 innings this season, matching his total over 64 innings last season.


Alzolay was moved out of the closer’s role after blowing four saves in seven chances — he blew three of 25 last year — but even working earlier innings hasn’t “fixed” anything. So what gives?

“I know for a fact that the ball is not moving the way it used to move before,” Alzolay told reporters after the most recent blown save against the Marlins. “I truly believe that. I feel there is something that I’m doing different with my mechanics that are making me come out of the arm path that I used to follow for the last 5-6 years. It’s just going back to feeling that and finding that click.”

A quick perusal of the data doesn’t reveal anything particularly alarming about Alzolay’s stuff. His fastball velocity is down slightly, but his spin rates are nearly identical and his extension is the same. Yet the slider has a -2.1 run value and the cutter Stewart tagged for the game-winner is at -1.2 so far. Where things start to jump out, however, is in the horizontal movement of the slider and cutter.

Both are up more than an inch from last year (slider 6″ to 7″; cutter 3.7″ to 5.3”), which might seem good sans context because we typically think more movement is good. While that may be true in some cases, it has a negative effect when the pitcher creating that movement doesn’t have a feel for where the pitches are going. Or perhaps he’s changed something with his mechanics, even to a minuscule degree, that is causing the difference.

Take a look at Alzolay’s heat maps from 2023 and this season and how they’ve gone from concentrated to erratic. The cutter map is a little less reliable at this point because we’re only talking about 12 pitches, but look at how the slider is being sprayed all over. Seeing it up in the zone is a big red flag. Also of note is how the four-seam is being located more like a two-seam with that heavy concentration on the arm-side edge.

2023 heat maps
2024 heat maps

I’m not going to pretend to know what’s changed and I don’t have access to the granular data or super slo-mo hi-def imaging to spot the most minute details in his mechanics, but I’d guess Alzolay is aiming and pulling his pitches a bit. In the interest of full transparency, that’s kind of my go-to analysis. It’s the same thing I thought when it came out that Jameson Taillon was opening up too early, a likely symptom of trying to force his sweeper to move a little more.

Whether it’s a matter of trying to change the shapes of his breaking balls to get that little extra or something wholly subconscious, it seems as though Alzolay might be focused more on the finish than the start. That could explain the additional movement and might even be the reason his fastball is working more to the arm side than before. If that seems odd, consider that the body is a compensation machine that will fight itself in order to make things work the way it thinks they’re supposed to.

So if a pitcher is opening up too much and pulling with his glove, his brain may tell his arm to release a little earlier to avoid firing one into the left-handed batter’s box. That could result in missing wide to the arm side, something we’re seeing more with all three of Alzolay’s most frequently thrown pitches. I also wonder if he’s maybe in his own head a little bit too much. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying things, my best advice would be to look middle-middle and let it rip.

Easy for me to sit here and say that as a dude who runs a blog and coaches at the youth level, right? The Cubs have a whole lot of expensive equipment and a small army of people dedicated to figuring this stuff out, though sometimes you just have to slice through the waves of information with Occam’s razor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of data because what we can measure we can improve. But there’s a point at which we spend so much time studying the symptoms that we never actually address the root issue.

Alzolay has tremendous stuff and he’s a fantastic emotional leader, so getting him right makes the Cubs a much better team moving forward. For his sake and theirs, I hope he gets this all figured out soon.

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