Reverse Superman Javier Assad Building Solid Second-Place Cy Young Candidacy

With six more scoreless innings to earn the win Wednesday night in Atlanta, Javier Assad pushed his record to 4-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.49 on the season. He also became the first Cubs pitcher since 1968 to begin the year with two earned runs or less in each of his first nine starts. Shōta Imanaga leads all qualified pitchers with a 0.96 ERA and has a chance to match Assad’s streak on Saturday against the Pirates.

But while the former NPB standout has received high praise for his dominance thus far, Assad’s hype has been largely contained to Cubs Twitter rallying behind The Assman. For those who aren’t chronically online, that’s a callback to the Seinfeld episode “The Fusilli Jerry” in which Kramer gets ASSMAN vanity plates. Perhaps more notable, David Puddy was also introduced into the greater pop-culture consciousness.

Kind of ironic that Jerry Seinfeld is out there whining about woke media because he made a crappy movie, yet one of his more notable sitcom episodes is being used to nickname a baseball player born more than two years after it aired. Not that the comedian should be surprised by people being attracted to something much older, or younger, than they are. But I digress.

Assad doesn’t throw very hard, gets very few whiffs, and he’s middling when it comes to walks, grounders, and missing barrels. Yet his overall pitching run value of 12 and fastball value of nine are in the 99th percentile as of this writing. Those are actually lower than they could be because his four-seam (-0.5) and cutter (-0.4) take away from a sinker that leads MLB with a value of 10.2 runs.

The sinker has been a tremendous pitch for him in large part because he throws strikes and fools batters with a little less movement than they are used to. We’re only talking about 8.2% less vertical break than the average MLB sinker, which seems like it should be inconsequential. Ah, but that difference amounts to 1.9 inches against the barrel of a bat that can be no more than 2.61 inches in diameter at its thickest point. Assad is a freaking surgeon with that sinker.

He’s given up only two homers, none in his last six starts, and his 3.8% HR-per-fly ball rate ranks fifth among qualified pitchers. Assad is also among the best in the league when it comes to stranding runners, putting up an 87.1% LOB rate that ranks ninth. For what it’s worth, Imanaga is fifth with a 5.3% HR/FB rate and leads the league with a 93.0% LOB rate.

I don’t think anyone out there believes Assad can keep this up for a full season, though he could still end up under a 3.00 ERA even if water eventually finds its level. Rather than concern ourselves with that, let’s just revel in the fact that a guy who entered the season in the rotation only because Jameson Taillon was hurt has now forced himself into the starting five on a more permanent basis. Plus the Cubs still have at least two other starters everyone would slot ahead of Assad.

Maybe he actually likes it that way, sort of like a reverse Superman — Super Assman? — who has to put his glasses on in order to assume his alter ego and save the day. Seinfeld was a big Superman fan, even had a magnet on the fridge in his apartment. Interesting. At the risk of making a comparison that falls apart quickly when examining any details beyond their sinkers, Assad feels sort of like Kyle Hendricks a decade ago.

Everyone kept waiting for the shoe to drop on the unassuming, soft-tossing righty from a place not known for producing MLB stars, but it never did. At least not until many years after people expected. Can Assad be that dude who keeps flying under the radar in spite of his strong numbers? As much as I’d like to see him get the recognition he deserves, I dig the idea that he keeps carving teams up and everyone seems surprised by it.

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