When you’re the fan of a fourth place team in late August, your focus tends to move off the standings and towards any players who could make an impact next year and beyond. And aside from perhaps Adbert Alzolay or Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele is the guy I’m watching most.
By now, you know the story. Steele, a long-time Cubs prospect, was excellent out of the pen for the Cubs earlier this season before a hamstring injury sidelined him for a little while. Once he healed up, Steele was sent to Triple-A Iowa to stretch out as a starter. And after yesterday, he’s made three starts for the Cubs. On the surface, the numbers don’t look great: 12.2 IP, 15H, 9ER, 6BB, 11Ks. But we’re not really looking for results right now*, we’re looking for development, and each of those starts comes with some important context.
*We already know he can get big league hitters out (2.03 ERA, 37.5% strikeout rate as a reliever).
Justin Steele’s first start on August 10th was on a hot (93°) and humid day in Chicago, and wasn’t really all that bad: 5.0 IP, 5H, 3ER, 1BB, 1K. He wasn’t striking a lot of guys out, but that’s probably because, as Sahadev Sharma explained recently, his sweaty hands made it difficult to deploy his most effective swing-and-miss pitch (the slider). His slider usage was down at 8.6% that day, compared to 29.3% and 31.5% in his next two starts. He was able to generate a TON of ground balls that day (57.9%), but clearly the weather forced him to adjust his likely gameplan right away.
Steele didn’t last quite as long in his second outing (4.0 IP), but he struck out five Reds over 4.0 IP and allowed just two earned runs. In terms of longevity, perhaps there’s a lesson there about pitch mix (i.e. shoot for fewer strikeouts by saving the slider for bigger moments while pitching to contact early … but it’s also probably a little too early to get into that game).
His third start was supposed to come on Tuesday night, but rain banged the game until Wednesday, which, sure, isn’t a huge deal, but it did throw off his between-start schedule (and it was another 90+ degree day). Even still, Steele managed to strikeout 29.4% of the batters he faced, including his last two batters, while two of his four earned runs came in to score after he left the game.
There’s also the fact that the Rockies, while not a great offense overall, had some particularly good hitters versus left-handed pitching in their lineup:
The Rockies have some potent bats against LHP in their lineup tonight. Could be a tough night for Justin Steele. #Cubs
C.J Cron: 156 wRC+
Brendan Rodgers: 150 wRC+
Connor Joe: 135 wRC+
Trevor Story: 125 wRC+
Garrett Hampson: 110 wRC+
Charlie Blackmon: 106 wRC+
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) August 24, 2021
You won’t likely have to face a group like that every night (and remember, wRC+ adjusts for Coors Field, so there’s not a ton of funkiness in those numbers).
With that said, there wasn’t nearly enough weak contact throughout the game yesterday (90.4 MPH average exit velocity) and he wasn’t keeping the ball on the ground (10% groundball rate). And, you know, hey … he did allow those two runners to reach and it was only the 4th inning. Long story short, it wasn’t an outing to be proud of.
After the game, David Ross was refreshingly blunt about the experience (via Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic): “Looked like he was working pretty hard, to be honest,” Ross said. “Gave up the home run early, breaking ball didn’t look its sharpest. I’ve seen him better.”
According to FanGraphs, Steele’s fastball and slider velocity were also both down a bit, and, in his own words, he didn’t quite have command of his fastball. Meanwhile, both he and Ross seemed to identify the exact same problem (or rather … goal for the future?):
Steele: “[I] just wasn’t commanding both sides of the plate.”
Ross: “Being able to execute to both sides of the plate [is how Steele can last deeper into games].”
At least they’re on the same page?
Sahadev Sharma took a much deeper look into each of his three starts so far, including more comments from Steele and Ross about what they’re working on. So you should definitely go check that out.
So ultimately, I’m not particularly concerned about Steele so far. There has been some stuff to like, some stuff to work on, and a little bit of flukiness that may have prevented us from watching Steele at his absolute best. Sure, the circumstances may never be perfect and he’ll have to learn to pitch around that stuff, but that’s what this process is all about. Having seen the way he dominated big league hitters as a reliever and having seen him flash some of that elite strikeout stuff as a starter gives me plenty of confidence in his future. He still has a long way to go, particularly on balancing the strikeout stuff versus in-game longevity, but it sounds like that’s already among the focuses of his development. And whether he winds up in the rotation long-term or settles into the bullpen, he’s going to contribute.