The turnaround the Chicago Cubs have experienced since the All-Star break has been nothing short of incredible. A team that looked like it would trade away pieces like Cody Bellinger, Marcus Stroman, and Kyle Hendricks with a record of 45-51 on July 20, flipped the script with an eight-game winning streak to save their season. The Cubs would go on to buy at the deadline by acquiring 3B/1B Jeimer Candelario and RHP Jose Cuas to push for the playoffs. That decision to buy appears to be paying off, as the Cubs have gone 13-7 since the trade deadline and now have a record of 66-60, good enough for a 0.5-game lead for the second Wild Card spot over the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds.
Numerous players have stepped up as part of this run, including Bellinger, Mike Tauchman, Dansby Swanson, Christopher Morel, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillion, Micheal Fulmer, Adbert Alzolay and many others. While all those players have had massive impacts on this run, in my opinion, one unsung player has had the most significant impact on the Cubs. If you read the title, then you know exactly who I am talking about.
Javier Assad made the opening day roster and after a slow start in May and June, the Tijuana, Mexico native had an outstanding July out of the bullpen, pitching 19.1 innings while giving up just one earned run (0.47 ERA). After that outstanding month, Assad's role has shifted since August began. Assad was already the Cubs long reliever and with the injuries to Stroman, Assad has been put into the starting rotation. Of his four outings as a starter, two of them are quality starts, including a seven-inning gem against the Blue Jays in Toronto Aug. 11, where he gave up just one run on four hits and had two strikeouts.
While the expectation within the Cubs organization has been for the 25-year-old right hander to reach the major league level, him being a mainstay in the rotation wasn't thought to be a possibility at all as he made his way through the Cubs farm system. It wasn't hard to see why, as his first season in AA in 2021 was not kind to Assad as had an earned run average (ERA) of 5.32, 1.53 walks and hits per inning (WHIP), and a 10.7 Hits/9.
However, Assad's pitching coach with the Tennessee Smokies, Jamie Vermilyea, said that Assad improved quite a bit in 2022, with much-higher pitch velocity after returning home to play in the Mexican Pacific Winter League.
"He's always been a guy that threw a bunch of strikes, and he'd eat up innings, and when he went home after that '21 season, he busted his ass off, and he came back throwing a lot harder," Vermilyea said. "I wanna say he jumped up two to three miles per hour across the board between his pitches; he put in the work that winter."
Vermilyea said that allowed Assad's cutter and slider to separate themselves and add a new dimension to his pitching ability. According to Baseball Savant, in 2023, Assad's cutter is at an average velocity of 89.1 MPH, while his slider is at 81 MPH and has a whiff percentage of 39.6.
"He is always a guy that would cut the ball and throw a slider off of that, and he was finally able to separate the two," Vermilyea said. "Those two pitches that had always blended for him, but once he was able to establish what his cutter was being a little bit harder, and we gave him the sweeper slider, and once he had those two pitches working, he could throw them to both sides of the plate to lefties and righties and really kind of took off from there."
Take off Assad did as he dropped his ERA to 2.51, his WHIP to 1.34, and his Hits/9 to 8.5 in 15 games before being sent up to AAA and the Iowa Cubs. Assad continued his strong play to finish out 2023, throwing in eight games for the I-Cubs with a 2.95 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP before making his major league debut on Aug. 23, 2022, in a four-inning shutout start against the St. Louis Cardinals.
While there was a little sadness for Vermilyea to see Assad go to the next level, he understands it's part of the job.
"We're trying to get guys better and pass them on to the next pitching coach at the higher level," Vermilyea said. "(But) it stunk to see him leave because any day he was starting, you could pencil in five or six innings every time."
Assad's breakout obviously came at a crucial time for the Cubs. Three of his four appearances in July ended in wins as part of the eight-game winning streak, including two against the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals. Since entering the rotation, despite only factoring in one of the decisions, the Cubs are 4-0, the biggest coming in Assad's first start against the No. 1 team in baseball in the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 5. Vermilyea said the versatility that Assad has displayed has been a valuable key for this Cubs turnaround.
"When we were at the trade deadline, we had (Marcus) Stroman and expecting him to be coming back a little bit sooner than later, and it ended up where he's back on the shelf again," Vermilyea said. "Us having that guy in Assad and being able to do both jobs of being a long reliever and a starter is valuable, and hopefully, he can get it going and help push the Cubs into the playoffs."
If the Cubs are going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018 (made it in 2020, but it was an 8-team playoff), it will take a consistent winning effort. As for Assad to be a significant piece to that, Vermilyea said that Assad would have to stay his consistent self to stay in the big leagues.
"If he can consistently give you a chance to win as a starter or being able to strand runners and have yourself be available more often than not out of the bullpen, you're going to have a long career," Vermilyea said. "Obviously, what they are doing with Javy right now is pretty special, and he's throwing the heck out of the ball right now, and he's proving to be very valuable."