Justin Steele’s 2022 Breakout Was Awesome – The Main Goal for 2023 Should Just Be More Volume
While the Chicago Cubs staff is loaded with veterans like Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, and Jameson Taillon, I actually think Justin Steele is going to be The Guy in 2023.
The 27-year-old lefty just had a breakout season (3.18 ERA over 24 starts), featuring a 24.6% strikeout rate (9% better than the league average) and some of the best contact management in MLB:
- 87.2 MPH average exit velocity: 13th in MLB, just behind Shohei Ohtani (12th) and just ahead of Corbin Burnes (14th). He also ranked 13th in hard%, effectively tied with Ohtani and Clayton Kershaw.
- 7.4 degree average launch angle: 11th in MLB, just ahead of Max Fried and and ahead of Brad Keller. Noted groundball specialist and teammate Marcus Stroman (7.0 degrees, 9th) was just barely ahead of him, as well.
- 3.9% barrel rate: 2nd in MLB! When you’re among the league leaders in both average EV and launch angle, you’re likely going to be among the league leaders in barrel rate. Justin Steele was basically the best in the business when it came to limiting barrels last season.
He’s also in the middle of his prime with just enough experience to be dangerous — as in, I think he’s begun to work out how to last longer each game and start more games each season. Long-story short: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we look back on 2023 with a clear picture of Justin Steele as the (de facto) ace in Chicago.
In order to get there, however, he’ll have to be healthy and maintain his velocity throughout the course of the season. Because even if his magic fastball succeeds far better than expected without premium velocity, Steele made just 24 starts in 2022 covering 119.0 innings, having been shut down before the end of August. And his velocity did wane pretty consistently from Day 1:
It’s a relatively small movement overall, and clearly he was locating well enough to have success. But ideally, he’d hold closer to that 93 mph mark throughout the year – a year that would ideally last a lot longer than 2022 did for him.
We’ll have to keep an eye on this all season, both the health and the fastball velocity. Again, Steele’s 2022 campaign ended early due to a strained lower back. It kinda felt like the Cubs were simply shutting down one of their most valuable pitchers in an otherwise lost season, which would make you feel better. But they did have him throwing some bullpens late in the year, with an apparent eye on getting one more start, so who knows.
Point here being, for as good as Steele has looked, he needs to reach 30+ starts and at least 150 innings if he wants to be that guy.
But I’d also like to point out even as his velocity started to drop last season, Steele still had a ton of success underneath the hood. Batters started swinging at WAY more pitches out of the zone than usual. And when you combine that with less overall contact, you get more strikes, fewer walks (because they’re swinging at balls out of the zone), and an increasing overall strikeout rate.
First 14 starts: 21.3% strikeout rate
Last 10 starts: 28.8% strikeout rate
Here’s a look at the progression of some of those key stats over the course of the season.
With more swings at pitches out of the zone, more whiffs, and less overall contact – Steele also enjoyed an increase in first-pitch strikes. That’s not surprising given all the other stats, but it certainly underscores the compounding success he enjoys, even when his fastball velocity is trending down.
Don’t forget the most fun part: that all tracks along with when Steele made some substantive changes to how he used his fastball, thanks to tips from Jon Lester. All the more reason to believe in the big breakout.
Now the next step is for Steele to take another page out of Lester’s book, and push that start total up toward 30 and the innings total up toward 150+.