Justin Steele could always spin a breaking ball. His curveball had been one of the keys to getting drafted and essential to his success in the low levels of the minor leagues. It was the only breaking ball he needed then, but when playing catch, sometimes Justin would grab the ball with his brother Jordan’s slider grip and give it a try.
And then at some point between a rough 2019 season and the 2020 quarantine, the Cubs recommended Steele begin trying to implement the slider as a secondary breaking ball offering. It took almost immediately. By his time at the Alternate Training Site in South Bend, it had become his best secondary. These days, it is the foundational offering that the Cubs believe will give Steele new life as a starting pitcher.
“When I started honing in on the slider it started opening doors for me, particularly with sequencing and working of my other pitches,” Steele said from Des Moines on Monday.
It’s hard to emphasize strongly enough how important the pitch has been for the left-hander. In his successful Major League cup of coffee this season, Steele threw the pitch 28.3% of the time, the second-most of any offering besides his four-seam fastball. The pitch yielded a 44.4% whiff rate and all of zero hits. It’s a low-to-mid 80s offering with sweeping horizontal movement, the 13.8 inches being 103% more than the average sliders thrown at that velocity, according to Baseball Savant.
Justin Steele, Wicked Sliders. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/YzXfhoo9L1
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 20, 2021
This nasty 82-mph breaking ball from Justin Steele! 🤢🤯 @J_Steele21
— Cubs Zone ™️ (@CubsZone) July 11, 2021
Steele is now being stretched out at Triple-A Iowa, crossing the 70-pitch mark on Friday for the first time, and the slider has led to continued dominance: 10.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 7 BB, 14 K. He’s pitching with the aggressiveness of a man that knows his stuff is good enough to succeed at any level, because his 11 games in the Major Leagues proved that it did.
“Going up to the big leagues and coming out of the bullpen having some success, having outings where I went two innings and showing I can get multiple outs definitely boosted my confidence up,” Steele said.
While Steele showed four pitches (two fastballs, two breaking balls) during his stint with the big league club, he was primarily a four-seam fastball and slider pitcher. The return to starting has allowed Steele to re-implement a changeup and work on further separating his four-seam and two-seam offerings as distinctly different pitches. In the Majors, Steele’s four seamer was an elite pitch, good the best whiff rate and best RV/100 (run value per 100 pitches) of any pitcher to throw 100 of them this season.
The pitch has continued to be a dominant offering since re-entering the rotation. On Friday, Steele struck out the first batter on a 97.8 mph fastball that he believes is the highest velocity he’s ever thrown. Steele has also proven the ability to hold 95 mph into a fourth inning of work (which is as long as he’s gone so far).
97.8 mph, as hard as Justin Steele has ever thrown, so the return to SP is going pretty well thank you pic.twitter.com/TfSfSxvGUe
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) July 26, 2021
“I’m really starting to settle into my mechanics, really feeling smooth out there, been awhile since I’ve felt so smooth,” Steele said. “I felt like I could have thrown 100-110 [pitches] that day.”
This is the remaining hurdle for Steele, who says he catches himself looking at the video board during starts to consider where his pitch count is versus whatever limit the Cubs have imposed for that outing. It’s a slower, more deliberate ramp-up for a pitcher the Cubs know has never pitched 100 innings in a professional season.
“I could definitely be more efficient,” Steele said. “I have to get my walks down, I have to throw more first-pitch strikes, get to 1-2 from those 1-1 counts more.”
Fastball command will be an essential part in achieving this, but it’s also where I think in the long run Steele’s comfort with the slider is so huge. On Friday, Steele showed more ability to backdoor the slider to right-handed hitters than I’ve seen before. If he can get early-count breaking balls to freeze hitters for strikes, it will help unlock the efficiency necessary for Steele to become the five-to-six inning pitcher the Cubs still believe he can be.
Keep your eye out in the second half, this is a big potential developmental story for the Cubs.