MESA, Ariz. — Adbert Alzolay’s emoji game got a workout this past week.
Alzolay tuned in for both of Chicago Cubs teammate Javier Assad’s stellar relief appearances for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. And as Assad racked up the scoreless innings on the international stage, Alzolay made sure to give his performances a shout out on Twitter, punctuated with the appropriate emoji.
“I mean, he’s just electric,” Alzolay told the Tribune. “Seeing him growing up in the minors and now seeing him on the biggest stage right now doing what he’s doing against the hitters and the teams he’s been doing it against tells you that this guy is already ready for the playoffs.”
Like Alzolay, most of Justin Steele’s career has overlapped with Assad’s at the minor- and major-league levels.
“That’s Assad, baby,” Steele said. “That’s just how he is. He’s really good.”
Assad’s success in the WBC built off his Cactus League work. In six appearances between the two, Assad has recorded 9⅔ scoreless innings with two hits, two walks and eight strikeouts. He notably has produced an uptick in his fastball velocity, sitting between 94-95 mph and has hit 97 mph.
Assad’s stuff combined with his spring production has put him in contention for an opening-day roster spot, even if that means using him in the bullpen. Manager David Ross said Assad is in the mix to start the season on the team. Ross isn’t ruling out Assad being used in relief.
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“I think that’s all that matters to him,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s starting or relieving. When he’s pitching like that, he can really help us. So as long as he continues to do that, he’s setting himself up to make really tough decisions for us. And those are good decisions. The more tough ones we have, that’s a good thing.
“You’re talking about a young man that put himself on the map last year and worked this offseason to get better and he’s proving that early, it gets you excited.”
For the second consecutive offseason, Assad used a program the Cubs created for him, centered on plyo-ball work to increase his velocity. After witnessing the velocity gains he made over the 2022 season, they took a “rinse and repeat” approach to his offseason work. Assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos cited the strength Assad added in the weight room, where “he took on maybe a little more ownership and challenged himself,” is also contributing to more life on his fastball.
When Assad reported to camp and threw his first session in the pitch lab, the Cubs immediately witnessed a different version of the Assad they had seen last year. Before he departed for the WBC, Assad touted to the Tribune how much his plyo-ball routine helped him maintain his mechanics, regardless of its effect on his velocity.
“He’s more physical so you’re seeing the lower half making more aggressive moves down the slope,” Moskos told the Tribune. “So everything is synced up. He looks great right now.”
The most encouraging element of Assad’s improved velocity is how it hasn’t lessened his excellent command. His ability to harness fastball command speaks to Assad’s skill and repeatable mechanics.
“You get excited because oftentimes we can create velocity, but if the guy doesn’t own the delivery, it can lead to a lot of spray fire and the velocity is not as impactful because he’s not in the zone or around the zone,” Moskos said. “So for a guy who already knows how to be in the zone to now add some tools to his tool belt, that’s where you see guys really take off.”