The development of Justin Steele into someone arguably closing in on being an elite starting pitcher has been the most important development for the Cubs this season.
Sure, Marcus Stroman pitching like a Cy Young contender is probably the most important thing in terms of bringing consistency to the rotation. But Steele performing how he has this year — and really, his last two healthy months of 2022, too — is a sign that what the Cubs are doing with their pitching infrastructure can yield results.
During the last competitive window, they couldn’t develop pitching. They had to put more money into the pitching staff. When the “offense broke,” they couldn’t really shift resources toward adding top-tier bats to go with their young stars. So when the likes of Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras were set to be free agents, the Cubs either traded them or let them walk.
Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has hit the reset button. Agree with it or not, that’s the direction the Cubs went over the last couple of years. But this time, achieving the sustained success they sought last time must involve developing their own starting pitching.
In a way, the Cubs are still in that pattern of spending money on starters. They brought in the likes of Stroman and Drew Smyly prior to 2022, and before this season, they re-signed Smyly and brought Jameson Taillon to Chicago. They’re not yet at the point of developing mostly homegrown pitching staffs — but Steele is an example that it is possible.
“We always knew the talent was there,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We saw it in spurts out of the bullpen, we saw it in starting. But just the consistency now. I think the biggest thing early when you have a young kid with great stuff is that consistency, making sure you know what you have every single day. Now, he’s learned what he needs to do every single day to be successful in this league. He doesn’t try to do much more than that.”
Steele returned Saturday from a left forearm strain that cost him the first half of June. It obviously wasn’t an extended stint on the 15-day injured list (Hayden Wesneski only made two starts in Steele’s place), but it was important to see him pick up where he left off.
The last time he pitched, Steele had gotten through three perfect innings against the Rays, who were at the time — and still are — the best team in baseball. But Steele felt tightness in the forearm, and the coaching staff could see him “kind of pumping the hand and stretching the forearm a little bit.” That forced him out of the game and ultimately on the shelf.
“I think when you see that right away, your head starts going to the worst. Like, ‘OK, what’s going on?'” Hottovy said. “You start making sure you’re communicating with him and seeing how he’s feeling. And then when he started talking about the things he was talking about, what he felt like in the start, it just doesn’t make sense to push it.
“You know right away when a guy is confident when he pitches, and then the minute you start talking to him between innings and you get any sense of hesitation, you know there’s probably something going on there. He said he probably felt good and could’ve tried to continue to pitch; we just wanted to take that out of his hands and not mess with something like that at that time of the year.”
Hottovy said one of the main things he wanted to see Saturday was Steele coming away “feeling good and healthy and feel like he’s recovering.” The recovery aspect will of course have to wait for Sunday morning when Steele has had the night to rest. But Hottovy also said he wanted Steele to get right back into attack mode. The way things played out, Hottovy should be pleased.
Steele sent the first three Orioles hitters packing (making it four consecutive perfect innings against the American League’s best). Steele went on to record an 83.9 mph average exit velocity on 16 balls in play, and 31.1 percent of his pitches resulted in a called strike or a whiff. The only damage came on a two-run Adley Rutschman homer in the fifth, but overall, it was another solid start for the 27-year-old.
“I was starting to drive myself nuts, just not being able to get out there and play baseball with the guys,” Steele said. “I was really enjoying watching us win ballgames and stuff, and for me to step right in and be able to contribute at a decently high level, it felt really good to be able to contribute to a win.”
“It was a nice little break for him, I think,” Cubs manager David Ross said of Steele’s time away. “Just making sure he’s 100 percent. I think we felt that way the more we got into the IL stint, just him being able to throw extended bullpens, continue to trust in what he’s doing and build on that. It was just really nice to see him come out and be really clean.”
After his outing Saturday, Steele leads all starters with at least 70 innings pitched in hard-hit rate (25.8 percent), and he owns the third-lowest barrel rate (4.8 percent) in the majors. Among National League starters with at least 70 innings pitched, Steele is right near the top in fWAR (2.1, third), ERA (2.71, third), WHIP (1.07, third), ground ball rate (49 percent, fifth) and walk rate (5.8 precent, sixth). So yes, he’s been performing like one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
When the Cubs envisioned their ideal rotation by this point in the year, it featured three free-agent additions (Stroman, Smyly, Taillon), a veteran on the last year of a lucrative extension (Kyle Hendricks) and Steele. While the others represent the resources the Cubs are still putting into the rotation/the previous generation of Cubs starters, Steele represents what the staff can be if they get the pitching infrastructure right.
Whether they do that remains to be seen. For now, the Cubs will make do with their homegrown lefty continuing to develop into a star.
“Steele has been been rolling,” Hottovy said. “It’s been a good stretch so far. Obviously, he’s coming back, we want to make sure that we’re smart about how we build him back up. But when he’s right, we know how dominant he can be in this game.”