The end of the 2022 season didn’t go as Justin Steele would’ve liked, but you can’t deny the impressive results.
Without pitching the entire last month of the season due to a lower back strain, and even with a 4-7 record that doesn’t look good at first glance, Steele took a big step in his development. By the end of the year, Steele was the only pitcher in all of Major League Baseball who made at least 24 starts and had a sub-3.50 ERA but collected no more than four wins (which tells you pitcher wins don’t automatically reflect success).
In what was his first full big league season, Steele gave fans reason to believe he can be a part of the “Next Great Cubs Team.” Now, it’s time for him to take that next step forward.
In a sit-down interview with CHGO at the Cubs Convention, Steele discussed a variety of topics ranging from dad life to 2022 takeaways to 2023 goals. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s going through your mind when you leave your exit meetings at the end of the season?
This past year, I had the back thing at the end of August, so September was just trying to get back to 100 percent healthy going into the offseason, so I don’t have to worry about the back. I was throwing bullpens full capacity and everything. We just didn’t really have time to build me back up and get me back out there. But when I walk out the door at my exit meetings, I’m just like, ‘All right, it’s time to relax.’ Take like three weeks off. Don’t think about baseball. Really just soak into the football season. That’s what I try to do, and then I usually start picking the baseball back up, working out and different things about three weeks into the offseason.
How’s dad life going with your son, Beau?
It’s been amazing. He’s just growing like a weed. He’s so much fun to be around. He’s yelling at me at all times. It’s a lot of fun. He’s six months old. He’s crawling around and picking himself up. It’s crazy to watch. He’s trying to talk. It’s a lot of fun.
What’s your favorite part about being a dad?
Favorite part is I guess when [his fiancé] Libby goes and does her work out, and it’s just me and him and we’re just laying on the floor on his play mat. I’m just playing around with him, rolling the ball to him. He gets excited, trying to talk and just doing those kinds of things. Waking up in the middle of the night, you hate it the moment. You’re so tired and you’re in there and you’re picking up a baby just screaming right in your face, yelling at you, but in hindsight, those are the best moments. Getting him calmed down, he loves you, gives you a hug and you put him back down. It’s the best.
Are you putting the baseball in his left hand so he’ll get used to it early?
He’s using both hands. And I mean, I’m not really biased. If he wants to be a shortstop or play golf, there’s a bunch of different routes he can take. He can do what he wants.
One of the big things that happened for you was Jon Lester offering his advice. Was that the turning point in your season?
So, Lester was talking to [Cubs manager David Ross] about my outings and stuff, and he was saying, ‘If he could just hone in on that fastball low and in to the righty, it opens up a lot more doors.’ If I’m going there and I miss arm side, that miss is still in the strike zone, still a competitive pitch. Whereas if I’m aiming high and I miss high, it’s a non-competitive pitch. It’s kind of a waste pitch. You’re just adding to your pitch count. So, I think that really kind of took a turn for me. I started limiting the pitch count, the misses were more competitive, and then I was able to throw my other pitches off of that. The slider worked really well off of it I think in the second half of the season. I was just really honed in on working them two pitches off of one another, and then if the at-bat dictated a different situation, I would mix in my other pitches.
You weren’t able to pitch at the end of the year, but was the 2022 season for you?
It was a great year. It was a lot of fun to do it and be a part of it. I’m really glad I got on that hot streak that I did get on in the second half. I really feel like I started putting things together, putting good start after good start together. It was really good to see that. The injury wasn’t ideal, but going into this season, it’s definitely a goal of mine [to make] 30-35 starts, 180-200 innings. Just try to be that workhorse in the rotation.
What are your biggest goals this season? Is it just meeting those innings marks?
Pretty much what I just said. My main goal is 180-200 innings, 30-35 starts, which means you’re not missing a start. You’re taking the ball every fifth or sixth day, whatever the case may be, and that’s kind of my goal for the season. I feel like if those things happen, then everything else is going to be all right. The peripherals, the numbers, everything’s going to be all right. If I can get 180-200 innings, 30-35 starts, I’ll be in a really good spot.
So, what have you focused on this winter to get your body to a place where you can hit those marks?
Attacking the weight room like I always do, just working hard. If anything, I’d say I might be doing a little bit less. I’ve definitely in past offseasons, I would just like kill myself [training]. I’m working out with football players that are getting ready for the NFL Draft and stuff, and I’m in there trying to keep up with them guys. I would say if anything, I’m just being smarter and working with more focus on what I’m doing and realizing the things that I’m doing and [transfering] it to the mound and using it in that way. I think that’s the big change I’ve made this offseason going into this year. Any workout I’m doing, I’m making sure it relates directly what I’m doing on the mound, what I’m trying to do.
What do you think about the group that’s coming up in the system?
I’m very excited. I’ll always talk about the farm and what’s coming up. I mean, the COVID year in 2020, I was at the alternate site. We had Brennen Davis there at the time and I think he was like 20 or 21 years old, and the at-bats he was giving me at that time, being that young. There’s guys that were fringe big leaguers that were there at the alt side, and he’s playing with us. It was really impressive. And just to know that there’s so many more that we have. Pete Crow-Armstrong. There’s a ton of pitchers I could list off. [Ryan] Jensen. We got DJ Herz here. I mean, it’s deep, and they’re really good. It’s not just talk or anything. I’ve been seeing it with my own eyes, and they’re really good. A lot better than I was at that age. They’re really advanced.
On the pitching side, offseason moves included the Cubs bringing in Jameson Taillon and re-signing Drew Smyly. What excites you about those moves?
For me, it’s just getting to know the guys. I love hanging out, chopping it up in the locker room with the guys. Me and Jamo have already been chatting about football and stuff. That’s my main thing is getting to know the person. I really like the personality side of people, getting to know people on a personal level. I’m really excited that we got Smyly back, too. He’s one of my good friends. We golf together and stuff, so it was really good to get him back as well.
Is that just a left-handed pitcher thing with Smyly (and Wade Miley last year)?
I’ve always heard lefties they just generate to one another. There’s something about the way the brain works and stuff. But it’s true. Ron Villone, he’s a pitching coach for us [at Triple-A Iowa], he told me that. He was like, ‘Lefties, they always get each other.’
Are people underestimating this team? Can it really be competitive in 2023?
Absolutely. I don’t know really what other people are saying or anything, but we definitely shouldn’t be overlooked. I mean, you add Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger. Add Jamo to the rotation, bringing Smyly back, all the additions we’re having. We’re just getting better and better. The second half of the season last year was pretty dang good for us, and then you just add pieces on top of that, I mean, it’s only going to go forward. I think it’s really important that we’re adding people that’s been there, won championships and know exactly what it’s taken. They’ve been a part of winning cultures. I think that’s really important.
What do you think of all the defensive upgrades on the roster?
It just gives you confidence. If I miss the pitch a little bit and they hit a hard ball, knowing in the back of your head that you have a good defense behind you that’s going to make the play more times than not, that’s a really good feeling. It just gives you confidence on the mound.
Do you also have that kind of confidence because of the way you performed in 2022?
Absolutely. Anything in life, you go do it and you do it well, it just builds confidence moving forward doing that thing, whatever you’re doing. Especially the way I ended the year, just knowing that I’m capable of going on runs like that, for me, I want to do that for an entire season. I saw that I could do it, and I want to keep doing it and prolong it.
Do you pay attention to free agency in the offseason?
I’m a sports fan just like everybody else. I love that stuff. Free agency football, NBA, I’m refreshing refreshing Twitter trying to see what’s going on. I become a fan in the offseason, because I want to see what’s going on, what the additions are going to be. Even for other teams. It was exciting to see the Correa stuff, where he was going to land. It’s fun to keep up with.
What’s your reaction when you’re seeing the Cubs make those moves?
I just get excited. You’re adding champions to the roster. For me, I just want to hurry up and get around them, start building that chemistry, get the team-bonding kind of stuff going. That’s what I look forward to most.
What are your thoughts on the moves the team has made to bring in players with a team-first, winning-over-everything mentality?
That’s what it takes to win. You got to have people on your team that’s bought into the plans, bought into what we’re trying to do, realizing it’s bigger than just a single player. This is a team effort, more than just the starting nine. It goes deep. Guys we’re calling up, we need you to be ready. You got to be ready for winning baseball, because that’s kind of what we’re anticipating. So, if somebody goes down, whoever comes up, like, they got to be ready for intense games, winning games and stuff like that. It’s really important to see from the guys up top and spreading that message down through the org.
Have you started to think about the pitch clock or the pickoff/stepoff limits and how that could affect you on the mound?
I haven’t put much thought into it. I don’t think it’ll be a big adjustment for me or anything. I can see where runners get on, it’s a tight situation, and I’m thinking about what pitch I should throw, who’s coming up, who’s after that, how many outs there. Just different things are running through your head, and I think it could possibly affect me in that situation where I’m actually thinking about what I need to do, taking a breath. But same thing for the hitters. They can only call timeout one time, so if it’s a situation where you get him to call timeout early, you can start messing with him at that point because he can’t step out. You can just come set and stand there and then get his timing and his rhythm all off. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how everything works out. There’s definitely going to be some kinks in the beginning stages and whatnot, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it shakes out, but I think it will help the game.
It’s nice to have Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart to help with that behind the plate.
Absolutely. It’s always good to have a veteran presence in the locker room, especially behind the plate.
They’ve both caught Wade Miley, who was the king of tempo on the mound. Maybe you can take an example from him.
I love Wade. Me and him got really close during last season. He always said, ‘You’re exactly like me when I was 25, 26 years old. Exactly like me. You’re just a little better.’ He’s hilarious. I love Wade so much. I’m glad to see he signed somewhere else. I look forward to seeing him.
This roster is so much different than even two years ago, when you made your big league debut. How would you describe the 2023 Chicago Cubs?
Man, [when I think of] Dansby, Nico, Yan, just guys that we have on the team, I just think consistency. That’s the kind of thing that comes to my mind when I think of the guys on our team that we have now. I think consistency is what you need over a span of 162 games. I think that’s what wins championships is being consistent. Obviously, it’s important to get hot at the right times as well. We all watch playoff baseball. It’s nuts. But yeah, when I think of those guys, I just think of consistency.