MILWAUKEE — Every time Justin Steele takes the mound the rest of the season, he’ll be resetting his new career high in innings pitched.
His 5 1/3 frames to start the Cubs’ 4-3 win over the Brewers on Friday brought his total up to 119 this season, far above his former pro-ball-high of 98 2/3 in 2017. In the old days, that wouldn’t even be approaching the total of starters who managed to stay healthy over a full season. Heck, it was only eight years ago that 34 different pitchers reached 200 innings (with two more one out away), a total Steele couldn’t reach even if he pitched all nine innings every fifth game the rest of the way.
But in 2022, a season that was affected by a 99-day lockout that pushed the start of spring training to mid-March, teams have been mindful of the workloads of their pitchers — especially the ones still finding their footing in the big leagues.
That’s true for the Cubs as well. They’ve been monitoring the innings of both Steele and Keegan Thompson, their impressive second-year pitchers with a ton of potential. In their rookie seasons, neither of them threw more than 57 innings. Both have long since surpassed that mark, and as they moved into the last couple months of the year, the coaching staff grew even more cognizant of monitoring their health.
“Now it’s about, ‘Hey, let’s finish strong, let’s find out how we can finish strong,'” assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos said this week. “‘Do we need to dial back what you do in the weight room, dial back what you do in conditioning so that we can be ready every fifth day, so that you can take the ball and feel fresh every fifth day?’ It’s definitely more geared towards that now than it is trying to boost performance. It’s, let’s sustain performance, let’s finish strong and let’s absolutely listen to what their bodies and arms are telling them.
“That’s been the message for this last month and a half, two months, whatever it is. It’s, ‘Hey, over-communicate with us. Tell us exactly how you’re feeling. We’ll figure out a way to get through these games, we’ll find a way to piece it together, but we can’t put you in harm’s way, so don’t let us do that.'”
As much as the staff has tried to be aware of their health, the grind of the season seems to be catching up to the young arms.
The first domino fell last weekend when Thompson was placed on the 15-day injured list with low back tightness. And on Friday, Steele was pulled from the game one batter into the sixth inning with the same ailment.
Steele said his back tightened up after his last warmup pitch before the bottom of the sixth. He was able to induce a flyout from Hunter Renfroe to start the frame, but the coaching staff sensed some discomfort. Manager David Ross and a member of the Cubs training staff went out to check on Steele, and the decision was made to take him out.
“The coaches could tell something was going on,” Steele said. “They came out, we were talking and stuff. They were like, ‘This is probably your last hitter regardless,’ so it just made sense to go ahead and come out.”
Steele and Ross both downplayed the severity of the injury postgame. Ross said the team’s trainers were able to loosen up Steele’s back some once he exited the game, and he considers Steele day to day. It’s too early to tell if an IL placement is necessary, and the Cubs will wait and see how Steele feels Saturday before coming to any conclusions.
“I don’t think he’s concerned, I don’t think the trainers are concerned,” Ross said, “but obviously, we’ll look big picture and make sure we keep an eye on the present and the future in all the decisions we make.”
In Steele’s case, that’s how it should be.
Whether the Cubs place him on the IL or they have him skip a start or they feel he’ll be ready to go for his next turn through the rotation, every decision they make moving forward has to come in the best interest of keeping him healthy.
Again, he’s still learning how to be a starter at this level. He’s figuring out how to keep his body in shape for the grind of a 162-game season.
Missing any time right now would take away some development opportunities, yes. But on the other hand, isn’t there value in making sure that, once this low back tightness is behind him, nothing else stops him from pitching every fifth day moving forward?
“I think knowing what that task feels like, there’s an accomplishment aspect to that,” said Ross pregame of Steele making it through the season.” … Then, when you kind of reassess, you start a new season, you realize, ‘OK, spring training for me is to prepare for this marathon that we’re gonna have,’ not, ‘I’m gonna come in and throw my first bullpen as hard as I can, because I want to impress the coaches.’
“We talk about that in spring, but those things that we do in spring is to prep the body, to prep the mind, to get physically acclimated to moving the right way, having the at-bats, get our timing down so we can go through this long season and hopefully get into the playoffs and win the World Series. I think it is important to get that finish line.”
As it stands for both Steele and Thompson, recovering from their back tightness is the priority. Then, the staff will help them move toward the end of the regular season.
Thompson’s injury required a stint on the IL. Steele’s may or may not. Either way, the goal has to be making sure those young pitchers make it through the year and go into the offseason fully healthy.
“We don’t want to use the offseason to recover from an injury,” Moskos said. “We want to use it to be able to attack some developmental objectives, so that they’re better heading into spring training next year. Health is the most important [thing]. As they say, the best ability is availability in this game. That’s where it’s at for me.”