Justin Steele Has Meaningfully Altered His Fastball This Year with Tremendous Results

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Justin Steele Has Meaningfully Altered His Fastball This Year with Tremendous Results

Chicago Cubs

Amidst some volatility in Justin Steele’s first full season in the MLB rotation, one statistic stands out as suggesting pure optimism: a 3.46 FIP. Head over to FanGraphs, peruse the leaderboard, and you’ll find Steele in some elite company, together in the range of Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander, Tony Gonsolin, and Michael Kopech. Maybe it’s a bit jarring, but I think it paints a rather succinct summation of Steele: if he can limit home runs, this can be a solid starting pitcher moving forward.

When Steele returned from Iowa as a starter last summer, his bugaboo for the second half of the season was that dreaded home run allowed. Ten balls left the yard in those nine starts, making for a 23.8 HR/FB% that would be the highest in baseball this season. It was, all of a sudden, a concerning unforeseen weakness.

Fast forward nine months here, and Steele’s home run prevention has been among his best qualities. His 0.46 HR/9 ranks as the 11th-lowest in baseball, and in that HR/FB% number, he ranks 15th-lowest.

Show this dichotomy to a sabermetrician, and they’d say, this is probably just noise, and duh, that’s why xFIP exists!

Maybe. While FIP evaluates pitching on walks, strikeouts, and home runs, xFIP exists to say to take out the noise in those home run rates. It creates a baseline for HR/FB%, due to perceived randomness in that stat (sometimes 350 feet is a homer, sometimes it’s a lazy fly out, depending on external factors beyond the pitcher’s control), and fits all pitchers to that baseline. So last year, Steele had a far better xFIP than FIP (4.21 to 5.52) due to the high HR/FB%, and this year, the opposite is true (3.46 FIP vs 3.99 xFIP).

This is going to be where well-intentioned individuals might come to different opinions about Steele. Some are going to project an inevitable rise in home run rate, and a regression in overall value. Some others, however – and I fall in this camp – are going to wonder if there might just be something sustainable behind Steele’s reduced home run rate this year. I’ll show you my work here.

Now, if we look at the surface-level batted ball statistics, we see minor bits of year-over-year improvements. Steele’s ground ball rate has gone up a bit from 50.6 to 52.2, the launch angle has ticked down a touch from 8.3 to 6.8, and the average exit velocity he’s allowed is down from 87.9 to 86.7. Improvements, yes, but at the end of the day, his xwOBA has gone down only from .309 to .305. Nothing that jumped out.

(Michael: Though, notably, his xwOBACON did drop from .351 to .333!)

So I went a little simpler: I used Baseball Savant to tell me the year-over-year difference in how far (in feet) the balls in play that Steele is allowing in 2022 versus 2021. And I found something interesting: 153 feet last year, down to 142 this year. But since we were talking about home run rate, I decided to narrow the search to balls that Steele was allowing in the air (outfield fly balls and line drives), and the difference got larger: 285 feet down to 257 feet. That seemed significant.

I went through each of Steele’s pitch types, to see where the difference was felt, and this is where I found this crazy-specific, but I think meaningful stat: no starter in baseball this season has allowed less distance on balls hit in the air with the four-seam fastball than Steele (min 10 batted ball events). He’s literally at the top.

Airborn four seamers have traveled an average of 240 feet against Steele this season. In 2022, they went 287 feet. That’s a massive difference, especially with a pitch that Steele throws over half the time. (If you think the ball must be responsible for this, note that I did too, but the average difference across MLB this year is down just three feet, per Savant.)

And what’s cool, and potentially suggestive of sustainability, is that Steele’s four seamer has meaningfully changed since last year in its basic characteristics.

2021 four seamer: 93.2 mph, 2.1″ hMov, 16.0″ vMov

2022 four seamer: 92.2 mph, 0.8″ hMov, 17.9″ vMov

It appears the Cubs and Steele made the decision to embrace the most unique component of Steele’s fastball – the lack of armside run, meaning it borders on looking like a cutter – and maximize it, even willing to sacrifice velocity and vertical carry on the pitch as a result. Steele’s fastball has the third-lowest run of any left-handed fastball in 2022, and in some recent outings, he’s actually achieving true cut with the pitch (negative hMov numbers).

I highly recommend reading Greg Zumach’s synopsis of “cut-ride” fastballs from earlier this month at Northside Bound, which lists Steele as having a cut-ride fastball. Zumach writes how cut-ride fastballs “can play up because hitters see the pitch and expect it to have more run only for it continue on a line.”

This little mental trick on a hitter is significant, and it’s one the Cubs are working on with a lot of eligible pitchers in the organization, with Justin Steele as the poster boy for its utility. Perhaps it’s responsible for less harmful contact, for fly balls to travel a shorter distance, and for a collapse in home run rate. Perhaps Steele’s FIP actually does tell an accurate story of a pitcher whose offseason adjustment has unlocked a legitimate Major League starting pitcher.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.