What to Expect When You’re Expecting Javier Assad: The Modern Innings Eater, Featuring Six Pitches and Legitimate Stuff
After Javier Assad’s May 6 start this year, his sixth of the season, I messaged a few people in and around the Cubs organization: “So Assad’s legit now, huh?”
Word came back that Assad had worked really hard and seen his stuff take a jump forward, and wow have the results followed (2.66 ERA over 108.1 innings across Double-A and Triple-A this year, 24.8% K, 7.8% BB). This is just not the same pitcher that didn’t even feature in my 50-person honorable mention prospect list this offseason.
Signed in 2015 out of Tijuana, Assad was part of a mid-2010s dedicated effort by the Cubs international scouting department to focus on Mexico (designed to exploit a loophole in how MLB calculated signing bonuses there at the time). Today he’ll become the second player from those Cubs efforts to reach the big leagues, following in Manny Rodriguez’s footsteps, as he’ll start the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader opposite Adam Wainwright.
Assad, who recently turned 25, was set to be a minor league free agent at the end of the season. The Cubs would have faced a difficult decision after the season on whether to add him to the 40-man roster – meaning he’d stay under team control – that they’re acting on preemptively here today. Assad likely sealed the deal with his most recent five starts in Triple-A: 25.1 innings, 17 hits, 2.49 ERA, 3 walks versus 30 strikeouts. The stuff, and the command, translating perfectly after a half-season of success in Double-A.
If you’ve followed my Five Stars posts this year, Assad has been a fixture, as his breakout has been among the most fascinating to me in the entire system. This is because it felt like a year ago, we knew who Assad was. He was a heavy-set right-hander, with little projection remaining, with consistent below-average strikeout rates and that kind of 88-93 velocity and forgettable pitch mix that stalls out in the upper minors.
Two things, in my mind, have fueled the turnaround in his career’s fortunes this year.
First, Assad got in much better shape. He’s still going to mostly fill out his Cubs uniform today, but the enhanced commitment to the weight room helped his average velocity increase. The top-end velocity is up to 96 mph on his four seamer now, but perhaps more importantly, we’re not seeing the pitch dip below 92/93 anymore. Second, Assad’s cutter has become his foundational – and sometimes his primary – offering, helping him limit left-handed hitters to a .631 OPS allowed in 2022.
In fact, while I’m not sure we’ll see all of them today, let’s talk about Assad’s entire six pitch mix:
- Four-seam fastball, 92-96 mph. The preferred strikeout pitch, thrown high up in the zone after a diet of cutters. Has been plus lately.
- Sinker, 92-94 mph. Pretty solid armside run, but likely settles in as a slightly below-average pitch.
- Cutter, 86-90 mph. When it’s right, he’s commanding it belt high and to the gloveside corner. The movement characteristics likely won’t light up a Stuff+ spreadsheet, but the combination of great location and solid velocity make the pitch play up as plus.
- Curveball, 74-78 mph. Big looping pitch that he’ll throw in any count.
- Slider, 81-84 mph. A pitch for the pitching team to revisit for 2023, it’s a fringe offering that shows hope of someday becoming more.
- Changeup, mid-80s. Likely only see against left-handed pitchers, an average offering that is helped by the diversity of the rest of the mix.
In my mind, the key if Assad is going to have success today is the Cubs don’t oversimplify the pitch mix. Javier’s success is predicated on the large arsenal he offers, and his success in commanding each offering, allowing him to pitch backwards and catch hitters off guard. He’ll need those tricks against Major League hitters, as hard contact on the fastballs is the concern he’ll need to mitigate.
While I would have Assad at the back end of my top 30 (he was 28 on the midseason list), my confidence level in his success in the big leagues is still tepid. It’s mostly average MLB stuff – and has improved to get to there, mind you – but he locates, and I have to believe that still matters. The lessons the Cubs have learned from game-planning for Adrian Sampson will be helpful today. And the lessons the Cubs will learn from watching Assad pitch in the next five weeks, when he does, will help inform if he keeps that 40-man spot all winter. I don’t think he can rest on his laurels that it’s now a guarantee.
Congrats to Javier, the best kind of baseball story: a guy taking his development into his own hands and changing his future as a result. Now is the absolute right time to test him against the very best, and to evaluate thereafter just how meaningful this breakout is to the organization.