Adbert Alzolay’s emoji game was trained last week.
Alzolay came close in both of Chicago Cubs teammate Javier Assad’s stellar appearances for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. And while Assad racked up scoreless innings on the international stage, Alzolay made sure to give himself a shout out on Twitter, punctuated with the appropriate emoji.
“I mean, he’s just electric,” Alzolay told the Tribune. “Seeing him come up in the minors and seeing him now on the biggest stage right now doing what he’s doing against hitters and the teams he’s done it against tells you this guy is already ready for the playoffs.”
Like Alzolay, most of Justin Steele’s career overlapped with Assad’s at the minor and major league levels.
“That’s Assad, baby,” Steele said. “That’s the way he is. He is very good.”
Assad’s success in the WBC was based on his work in the Cactus League. In six appearances between the two, Assad pitched 9⅔ scoreless innings with two hits, two walks and eight strikeouts. In particular, he produced an uptick in fastball velocity, sitting between 94-95 mph and hitting 97 mph.
Assad’s stuff, combined with his spring production, has him in contention for a roster spot, even if that means using him in the bullpen. Manager David Ross said Assad is in the mix to start the season in the team. Ross doesn’t rule out Assad being used in relief.
“I think that’s all that matters to him,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter if he starts or releases. When he pitches like that, he can really help us. So as long as he continues to do that, he’s setting himself up to make some very tough decisions for us. And these are good decisions. The harder we have them, that’s a good thing.
“You’re talking about a young guy who put himself on the map last year and worked in the offseason to get better and he showed that early, it gets you excited.”
For the second straight offseason, Assad used a program the Cubs created for him centered on plio-ball work to increase his velocity. After witnessing the velocity increases he made during the 2022 season, they took a “rinse and repeat” approach to his work in the offseason. Assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos cited the power Assad has added in the weight room, where he’s “taken maybe a little more ownership and challenged himself,” also contributes to more life on his fastball.
When Assad showed up to camp and held his first session in the field lab, the Cubs immediately witnessed a different version of Assad than they had seen last year. Before leaving for the WBC, Assad told the Tribune how much his plio-ball routine helped him maintain his mechanics, regardless of its effect on his velocity.
“It’s more physical, so you see the lower half making more aggressive moves down the slope,” Moskos told the Tribune. “So everything is in sync. It looks great now.”
The most encouraging element of Assad’s improved speed is that it hasn’t diminished his excellent command. His ability to capitalize on his fastball command speaks to Assad’s skill and repeatable mechanics.
“You get excited because a lot of times we can create speed, but if the guy doesn’t own the delivery, it can lead to a lot of spray fire, and the speed isn’t as impactful because it’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.”