Justin Steele, the Cubs ace and Cy Young contender, will take the bump in Pittsburgh on Thursday looking to win his league-leading 15th game in 2023.
From earning his first All-Star Game selection to now being one of the driving forces in the Cubs’ late-season playoff push, Steele has thus far turned in a memorable season. He’s emerged as the team’s top pitcher, and at only 28-years-old, someone to build around.
With a little a month remaining in the regular season, CHGO caught up with Steele to talk his first year as a dad, his workload, the feeling of being in the playoff hunt and more.
Thank you for joining us Justin. How are you feeling [Sunday]?
Doing good. A little bit sore from the game [Saturday], but that’s as expected. I’m just gonna get my recovery stuff, my treatment in today and then watch a ballgame.
That brings to mind a good question. How are you feeling at this point in the season, hoping to finish your first full season as a starter?
I’m feeling good. I put the work in the offseason to prepare my body to be ready for situations like this, career highs for me in innings pitched and stuff. I feel like in the minor leagues, there would’ve been other years I would’ve probably got over 100 innings at times. But I think right at my 100th inning, when I had Tommy John [in 2017], is when I ended up blowing out. I think that year, I would’ve probably had 120 innings or so. And then the COVID year. Just some things happened, but yeah, I mean, it’s nice to be doing it now. I feel good. I’m really happy with where I’m at in the season.
You’ve mentioned wanting to get to 180 innings pitched this season. How did you work on your body to be able to get it done, physically?
Me and Keegan [Knoll], the strength coach, he was in Arizona with me as well. We were just super aware of what happened last year, just kind of running out of gas. You start doing things that your body is not used to. My back ends up tightening up. Luckily, we saw it right away, and I didn’t try to pitch on it and end up injuring something else or something. I ended up throwing bullpens at the end of the season last year and was ready to go, but the season was ending. We were just aware of kind of what happened with that season, and then we went into this offseason and I was just doing the proper things in the weight room and the training room. Just preparing my body knowing this point of the season was gonna come again, and just wanting to make sure my body was ready.
Something else that changed in your life over the last year is becoming a dad. How is dad life going? How is your son, Beau, doing?
He’s doing awesome. He’s growing like a weed, getting big, eating everything, yelling at me. It’s awesome. Being a dad’s the most amazing thing ever.
Has being a dad affected you baseball life? Has that dynamic shifted at all the way that you’re able to do what you do?
It’s changed things in a lot of ways. It definitely makes me more focused while I’m here. It makes me want to be better for him, because I’m not just playing for myself now. And then there’s other things you think about. Like, when he gets older and he does research on what his dad did, I want him to be proud of the career I had, the person I was, the teammate I was. So, you think about all them things. You gotta have a child, I would say, to really start thinking about them kind of things.
Is he grabbing baseballs left-handed and throwing Mississippi fastballs?
He uses both his hands a lot. He’ll use his left hand to eat, he’ll use his right hand to eat. So, I don’t know what, honestly. I couldn’t tell you right now.
Along with the team’s current success, are you able to personally enjoy what you’ve been able to do this year?
For me, it’s awesome, because I just really put a ton of work in in the offseason. And not just this past offseason, but over my career of seven years in the minors. It wasn’t a straight line for me to get to the big leagues. There was bumps in the road, for sure, and I just worked extremely hard. For me to have this kind of year, I’m just proud of myself. It’s awesome to have the team in the situation that it’s in. We’re competing, we’re pushing for the playoffs and stuff, and it’s just awesome showing up to the ballpark every day trying to win the ballgame. Everybody’s pulling on the same rope. We just got a great clubhouse right now.
In ’21 and ’22, you guys were out of it at this point in the season. How different is the feeling now for you and the team as a whole?
I feel like you just show up to the yard with a little more focus. Like I said, we’re showing up, we’re trying to win the ballgame that day and keep pushing forward for the playoffs. You just show up with a different energy every day, I would say. And then, along with the fans, especially here at Wrigley, they’re all aware of what’s going on, too, so they’re super into it. It’s just awesome to see. It’s awesome to be a part of it as well.
Fans will show up to Wrigley regardless of the standings, but how have they been during this playoff push?
They’ve been amazing. There’s honestly not enough words to describe the fans here at Wrigley and all the love and support they give us. When I’m walking out to the bullpen to warm up before the game, the left-field bleachers is always going nuts. It’s just awesome. There’s no place like it.
Have you gotten over the feeling of getting out the best hitters in baseball?
I’m well aware of, like, who I’m facing, and all that stuff. But in my mind, I’m like, it doesn’t matter who I’m facing. I’m on the mound right now. I gotta help the team win, and I just try to get them out.
Everybody in that clubhouse talks about taking things one game at a time. But with where you’re at in the standings and in the season, does it get difficult keeping that mindset?
I think it just depends who you are. For me, it’s not, because I go back to when I was rehabbing [from] Tommy John. I remember when it happened. I was kind of devastated. It was the end of the season, I was getting ready to go home. I blew out, and then I realized, like, I’m gonna be in Arizona pretty much the whole year now, so not really having an offseason. But I remember just every day through that process, I was like, just take it one day at a time. One day at a time. Go to the field, get better that day, do whatever you can to get better that day. One day at a time, and I’d say 8 1/2 months later, I was back throwing, facing hitters and stuff again. I would say ever since then, I’ve just been really good at taking things one day at a time.
After your first All-Star Game, you mentioned talking to and taking things from different people. How have those lessons aided you this season?
That kind of stuff always helps. Not even from the All-Star game. I mean, we got guys like [Jameson Taillon], Kyle Hendricks, [Marcus Stroman]…
Jon Lester, too.
Yeah, people Lester that are always helping. And yeah, you go to the All-Star Game, you’re around people like Clayton Kershaw. Just some absolute studs, the best in the game. For me, I was honestly just watching most of it. I was learning just by watching and seeing what their routines were, how they go about their day. It was cool to see how comfortable some of the guys were that it was like their sixth All-Star, seventh All-Star. Just cool to see how used to it they were. But yeah, it was just a really cool experience.
Have you taken anything from that as far as implementing things you saw or learned into your own routine?
I really just like how focus Kershaw is with his work. Even a day that he’s not really pitching or if he’s just playing catch. It’s really cool to just watch how focused he is. Watching him do that, it made me want to be more focused.
With a few weeks left in the season, how does the mindset and what you’re doing, individually, change — if it does at all?
For me, it’s not really changing. I’m just taking it a day at a time, showing up each and every day to the yard. Whatever I gotta do that day to help the team win, I’m gonna do it. So like, I pitched yesterday. Today, I’m just gonna make sure I do the proper things to put my body in a good position to start recovering and then throw a bullpen midweek. And then, Day 5 rolls around, I get back on the mound.
Seeing Javier Assad’s success, especially since joining the rotation, what has that been like to watch?
It’s awesome. I’ve always known Assad’s kind of had this in him. I forget when we signed him, but when we did sign him and he came to AZ and I first met him, started watching him throw. I could just tell he was a great pitcher. So much pitch ability in that arm, and that guy, his mental. He’s just a great person as well. It’s awesome to see him have this kind of success and I’m extremely happy for him, but definitely saw it coming, honestly.
Does that just stem from the next-man-up mentality?
That’s kind of how it is. We just gotta win ballgames. Regardless of who it is, if you’re out there and you’re in the spot, whether you’re on the mound or at the playte, you’re in that position and you gotta do what you can do to try and win the ballgame. I feel like everybody’s kind of pulling on that same rope.
What are you hoping to see out of this team over this last stretch of the season?
I mean, I just hope we continue to win ballgames. It’s been a lot of fun. The clubhouse we have right now, there’s a lot of camaraderie going on in there. Everybody’s having fun, showing up every day excited to be here, and that’s just really cool to be a part of.