The full 2023 All-Star rosters are now known, but a couple of hours before first pitch on Sunday, Cubs manager David Ross held a special meeting to break the news early to his players.
From the media room adjacent to the Cubs locker room, three different waves of cheering were heard. One for each of the players who will be representing the Cubs in Seattle this year: Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and Dansby Swanson.
This is Swanson’s second All-Star appearance and second in a row, and Stroman is returning to the Midsummer Classic for the second time as well. He last played in the 2019 game in Cleveland.
But for Steele, this recognition is a little different because it’s his first time as an All-Star.
“You grow up wanting to play major league baseball your whole life, and playing an All-Star game has obviously always been a goal, something to look forward to. It’s quite the honor,” he said.
Steele has emerged as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, especially this season. After his last start against the Guardians on Friday, Steele’s ERA dropped to 2.43, the lowest in baseball. He may not tally the strikeouts at the rate of pitchers like Spencer Strider of the Braves, but Steele is stingy when it comes to letting runners get on base. Along with his league-leading ERA, he has the lowest WHIP among qualified National League starters.
After turning a corner last June, Steele has put together a full calendar year of strong pitching. He had a 0.98 ERA in his last seven starts of 2022 and committed over the offseason to continuing to improve, picking up his family and moving from their home in Mississippi to the Cubs’ spring training facilities during the winter.
“This guy made a real dedication this offseason, moving to Arizona, putting the work in to be able to be this type of pitcher for us all season long,” Ross said. “His first half has been phenomenal. He’s a guy we lean on.”
All of that is part of why Steele has become one part of the one-two punch at the front of the starting rotation.
“I think everybody knows when he goes out on the mound, we feel like we’re going to get a win,” Stroman said. “And that’s pretty amazing to have as far as a feeling from a team, to know when a guy steps out on the mound, he’s going to give you a great chance to get a win.”
As a group, the starters have grown into a tightknit bunch, spending time watching each other throw bullpen sessions – something they didn’t do until this season – and the Steele/Stroman combo have taken to boosting each other on social media as well. Those kinds of things have played a role in Steele’s progress, Ross said.
“The maturity level has gone up so much this season,” Ross said of Steele. “It feels like he’s gotten to be that dude who you expect to dominate every time out because of how he’s grown.”
Stroman is have a Cy Young-caliber season in his own right. His 2.76 ERA ranks fourth in the National League, and he has held opposing hitters to a .205 batting average. Only Blake Snell’s is lower (.199) in the National League. And he has done all of this while throwing the second highest number of innings in the NL.
When Stroman was last named to the All Star roster, he was putting up similar numbers for the Blue Jays as he has been this season. In 21 starts before being traded to the Mets that year, Stroman posted a 2.96 ERA. But set some of his other numbers from that season against what he has done in 2023, and Stroman is outperforming anything he has done before.
Stroman listed off the Cubs coaching and clubhouse staff when thanking the people involved in helping him put up personal best numbers at this stage in his career and so many seasons after last being named and All Star.
“Four years later, to still consider myself at the top of my game,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m in my prime, and I feel like I’m going to stay here for a long time.
“That’s always pretty special, just to be named amongst your stars at the highest level. It just puts all the work and everything that you do for this game, it just kind of puts it into perspective.”
Like his counterpart in Steele, Stroman is the kind of player his team trusts to put them in a position to win when he takes the mound. He leads both leagues with 14 quality starts.
“The moments this season where we’ve struggled to put up Ws, and his turn comes around and he finds a way to carry us across that finish line. He’s put us on his back multiple times,” Ross said.
Both of these pitchers owe some degree of their success to the defense behind them, especially up the middle. Among NL shortstops, Swanson has the highest fWAR, and he is tied with Francisco Lindor for the highest OPS. Expand to both leagues, and Swanson’s 2.9 wins above replacement ranks just third behind Wander Franco (3.7) and Bo Bichette (3.0).
Swanson came to Chicago from the Braves on a seven-year, $177 million contract over the offseason. Many players who have come to the Cubs with a large contract looming above everything they do have struggled in their first season at Wrigley. Swanson has only picked up where he left off in Atlanta.
“Never has he shied away from any moment. All he wants to do is play. He wants to grind. He wants to be in there for the boys,” Ross said. “He has the work ethic, the championship pedigree and the mindset to be that guy. The staple that we needed here in the middle of our diamond.”
Being named an All-Star is a recognition players don’t take lightly, because they know in some cases it’s because they have been chosen by the fans, and in others, by their peers.
“The guys you play against, and to be able to have that kind of respect of other guys around the league and coaches, I think that’s something to not overlook as well because there’s some weight that goes into it, and for them to have that respect, whether it’s your teammates or guys you play against, it’s really, really neat,” Swanson said.
One of the unique things about the All-Star game is that, for at least a day or two, players get to be teammates with guys they otherwise wouldn’t. Steele said he is looking forward to talking to Clayton Kershaw and gleaning some things from him. And Swanson, who missed that time with his NL teammates in 2022 because he got permission to go watch his wife play in the CONCACAF championships in Mexico, is excited to make up for some lost time with the NL’s best.
“It’s so cool to pick the brains of anybody and everybody that’s there,” Swanson said. “Obviously, they’re successful for a reason, and to be able to learn from what makes guys the best at what they do and to be able to take something from each person you’re there with is neat.”