With the Cubs in the thick of a playoff race, end-of-season awards aren’t the biggest motivating factor for Justin Steele right now.
It’s nice to be in the conversation for any of those, for sure. But getting this team to the playoffs — and potentially playing deep into October — is the No. 1 focus.
“It’s really cool. It’s quite the honor,” Steele said postgame Monday about being in the discussion for the National League Cy Young Award. “But for me, I just want to keep showing up every day and winning ballgames. I really like where the team is at. I feel like we’re starting to click on all cylinders, everyone is picking each other up when it’s needed. It’s just a lot of fun to play for this team right now.”
Regardless, every time he goes out to the mound, it feels like he’s putting on performances worthy of heavy Cy Young consideration. And that didn’t change with the Giants in town for a Labor Day matchup at Wrigley Field.
Steele, who earned his first All-Star nod in July, has never looked as dominant as he did cruising through San Francisco’s lineup Monday. In the 5-0 Cubs win, Steele set career highs in innings pitched (8.0) and strikeouts (12), and he allowed just two hits and two walks apiece. His four-seamer/slider combination was crisp; they accounted for 105 of his 107 pitches, they both combined for 33 percent whiff rates and they picked up 12 and seven called strikes, respectively.
From the last out of the second through the last out of the seventh, Steele retired 16 straight Giants batters. And when he got Patrick Bailey swinging to end the top of the seventh with the 39,452 fans in attendance on their feet in a 1-0 game, he couldn’t help but roar in the moment.
“It’s just Wrigley. It’s just the fans realizing the moment,” Steele said. “They brought the energy, and I kind of like to feed off of it. It was awesome to pitch in that environment. Just a really cool moment.”
“It’s the same in April as it is right now in September,” Yan Gomes said. “These are truly some of the best fans in the game, if not the best fans. They understand the moment, and they understand that that was a big moment for Steeley. When you get a guy like that that feels it, you kind of get an extra gear.
“I mean, it was a hot day out there, but when you’re doing it for something more than just yourself, you kind of get that extra energy. We’ve got a lot of people cheering for us. We feel that energy. It’s every day that they come out there and cheer for us.”
Cubs manager David Ross sees some of his former batterymate, Jon Lester, in Steele. He’s not making direct comparisons, but he does feel like Steele’s mentality in pressure situations is similar to what he saw behind the plate across 578 2/3 innings for Lester.
“Jon wanted the ball in the biggest moments. Steele wants the ball in the biggest moments,” Ross said. “Steele feels like he’s putting us on his back and carrying us wherever we need to go and going out and doing what he does best and going and competing really well.”
Monday was obviously one of those big moments. Steele was going up against the Giants, who were in a three-way tie for the third NL Wild Card spot heading into the series opener, and he was matched up with Logan Webb, who has also been mentioned in NL Cy Young conversations.
The playoff feel was in the air. A nearly-full ballpark provides that atmosphere.
When the pressure was at its highest, Steele thrived — because he absolutely wants the ball in those situations.
“For me — I don’t know about other ballplayers — you dream of big moments,” he said. “I would say, when you’re a kid and you’re dreaming of pitching in the big leagues, you really don’t think about, like, getting the first batter out of the game or anything. You think of, like, bottom on the ninth, closing the game. Just the big moments, making the pitch and stuff. It’s really cool to complete them moments.”
With that in mind, has he put himself in position to become only the Cubs’ second Cy Young winner of the last 30 years (Jake Arrieta, 2015) and the franchise’s first left-hander to take home the award? He certainly has an argument.
Here’s how he ranks among qualified starters in various statistical categories (as of the end of the Cubs’ victory Monday):
- Wins: Tied for first (16)
- ERA: Second (2.55)
- Quality starts: Second (19)
- Win Probability Added: Second (2.35)
- Wins Above Replacement: Third (4.3)
- Walk rate: Sixth (5.3 percent)
- WHIP: Eighth (1.14)
- Strikeout rate: 13th (24.5 percent)
There are some old-school and some new-school numbers in there, but they all tell us Steele has been among the very best NL starters this season.
Now, other pitchers have compelling cases, too. San Diego’s Blake Snell leads the NL in ERA (2.50) and WPA (2.52). Atlanta’s Spencer Strider leads in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.81) and strikeout rate (38 percent). Webb leads in walk rate (3.8 percent) and innings pitched (187) and quality starts (20). Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler leads in fWAR (5.4). Arizona’s Zac Gallen is in the top five in many of those same categories.
So, Steele has competition, but the folks outside of Chicago have certainly taken notice. Heck, some gambling sites had given him the second-best odds to take home the hardware after his performance against the Giants.
Steele has roughly four more starts left in the season to try and cement himself as the favorite. And while winning a Cy Young isn’t his main focus as the season winds down, continuing to pitch like one would absolutely be beneficial to the Cubs’ playoff push.
“September is usually when the Cy Youngs come out, and when you’re having outings like this, the voters like it, man,” Gomes said. “We’re playing some good baseball. He’s out there giving us a chance to win.
“He’s becoming the elite pitcher that we thought he would be.”