Justin Steele’s big league development is one of the top storylines for us to track this season. Figuring out whether Steele can stick in the rotation longer-term is right up there with feeling around for Seiya Suzuki’s ceiling, determining whether Nico Hoerner can be the multi-year starter at shortstop, and the like.
So far, Steele has made seven starts this season, looking the part on more than one occasion, but sometimes struggling to keep his stuff working after that 3/4-inning, 40/50-pitch mark. Things are still an open question.
However, his most recent effort against the Diamondbacks was clearly his best start of the season, and probably the second best start of his big league career: 6.0 IP, 3H, 1ER, 2BB, 10Ks.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 15, 2022
That was just the second time Steele has recorded an out in the sixth inning of one of his starts, and his first double-digit strikeout game since he struck out 10 batters in A-Ball back in 2016.
Oh! And according to Christopher Kamka (a great Twitter follow, if you’re not already), that was the first 10-K game from a pitcher drafted by the Cubs since JEFF SAMARDZIJA back in 2014. Which, LOL. Yeah, that really says a lot.
So where did all the strikeouts come from? Well, a quick peek at Statcast reveals 13 total whiffs on the evening, NINE of which came from his nasty slider – which got the Pitching Ninja treatment on Twitter (another great follow):
Justin Steele, Wicked Sliders. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/zj4NaWmncQ
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 15, 2022
I’m always so impressed by the movement on that slider. And it turns out, it’s not particularly common from the left side. Among left-handed pitchers with at least 50 sliders thrown this season, Steele’s movement compared to average (1.6 inches more than average vertical, 3 inch horizontal) are both top-20 in MLB.
“My slider was working very well,” Steele said after the game, per Cubs.com. “I was able to get it for swing-and-miss and for strikes whenever I wanted. I really felt good with it.”
Interestingly, Pitching Coach Tommy Hottovy was focused much less on the slider, which he agrees will always be there for a whiff when Steele needs it, and more on the lefty pounding the zone early with his four-seamer and sinker. The goal there was to help Steele go deeper into the ballgame, with a specific challenge to end as many at-bats with four or fewer pitches.
“What’s hurt him has not been stuff. It’s been long at-bats, long innings and next thing you know, you’re in the third or fourth and you have a high pitch count. So being able to manage that has been one of our No. 1 goals.”
So, did Steele meet the challenge?
Well, he ended 11 at bats in three pitches or fewer yesterday, and 17 of 24 by the fourth pitch (thanks to Jordan Bastian for the counting). With the exception of a lengthy fourth inning, which was extended by an error, Steele needed just 14 pitches or fewer to finish 5 of his 6 innings. He had been averaging 19.4 pitches per inning before yesterday, so, yes, this was all a resounding success.
Now, we must point out that the Diamondbacks, for as surprisingly good as they’ve been this season, were actually one of the worst offenses in MLB against left-handed pitching this year (83 wRC+, 27th). I don’t think we need to discount Steele’s performance too much, though that’s certainly a factor worth pointing out as we look ahead.
Ultimately, I think the focus given to Steele on Sunday is the big win for the Cubs, especially given how many strikeouts Steele racked up DESPITE trying to focus on early efficiency. If he can find the right balance between (a) allowing the right kind of contact and (b) going back to the slider for a whiff when it’s needed, he may just unlock the next level of his career. And the Cubs might have an answer to that important question about his future in the rotation.