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CHGO Cubs Weekly: Here's one way Justin Steele can build on his breakout 2023

Ryan Herrera Avatar
March 19, 2024

Welcome back to another edition of the CHGO Cubs Weekly newsletter.

While he was still the Brewers’ manager last season, new Cubs skipper Craig Counsell at times couldn’t understand why his team couldn’t really get to Justin Steele when he was on the bump.

It was truly a breakout season for Steele, 28, one that saw him end the year as a 4.9 fWAR player while earning a fifth-place finish in National League Cy Young voting. Outside of a handful of starts throughout the year, Steele spent 2023 frustrating opponents by continuously limiting hard contact and walks, missing barrels and keeping the ball on the ground.

One of the things Counsell saw firsthand while sitting in the other dugout was Steele’s increased confidence in moments when things started to get tough.

“You get punched, so to speak, in this game as a young player,” Counsell said early in spring training, “and getting back up and making that adjustment so that you win that matchup the next time or you win that moment the next time is kind of what being a Major League Baseball player is about. And I thought that’s what Justin did last year.

“You have moments where you feel like you’re gonna get Justin, and then he shuts it down. And because it’s whatever that negative thing or that bad thing that happened, you recover from it really quickly. So, instead of getting knocked down you just flinch. I thought that was one thing in that growth you saw in Justin last year, to me.”

One thing that remains true for me is that, once a new season begins, it doesn’t really matter what you did the season before. The great players in this game will take a great year, and then they’ll go out and stack another great year on top of it. Then they’ll add another great year onto that, so on and so forth until you look back at a great career.

That’s where Steele is right now. He’ll officially hit 10 years in this organization in June, but he’s coming off his first truly great season in the big leagues. The question for him now is how he can build off that breakout year with another great one in 2024.

Before we dive into that, let me remind you about our newest Diehard-exclusive perk: A database of every player currently on the Cubs’ 40-man roster with recaps of their 2023 seasons and previews of their 2024 seasons. From prospects you might not know as well to the biggest names on the roster, we have the info for every 40-man guy.

Additions are on the way, too. It’ll be something Diehards can look back to when a name you don’t know pops up on your radar, so don’t miss out!

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So, how can Justin Steele be even better in 2024?

I’ve said it myself on the podcast: I do think there’s room for Steele to be even better coming off his 2023.

One thing I’ve noted is the fact he had so much success last season with an arsenal dominated by his four-seamer and his slider. In fact, those two pitches made up 96.5 percent of his total pitches.

Steele threw the two-seamer and curveball a whole lot more when he first came up, and he’s mixed in some changeups as well, but as he’s gotten deeper into his career, he’s become a majority four-seam/slider guy.

If he can carve out a great career doing that, then that’s obviously an outstanding job by him. But I do think having even one more pitch he can throw with confidence more often would be huge, and that’s something he agrees with.

“I did a lot of work on my two-seam and my changeup, just to have two more offerings,” Steele told CHGO about his offseason work. “I wanna get them pitches to the confidence level of my other pitches, and that would just open some more doors for me, have more doors for success.”

Those two were his third and fourth-most thrown pitches in 2023. He had more success with the two-seamer than with the changeup, but when you’re talking about them combined being less than 3 percent of his total pitches last year, it’s really too small a sample to take too much away from.

Getting those two to a confidence level even close to where he is with his four-seamer and slider would just give him more to attack hitters with. He’d have a third and fourth option hitters would have to account for. He had a ton of success when hitters only needed to worry about the four-seamer and the slider; with another pitch or two, as he said, that would open even more doors for success for him.

I don’t think Steele needs to change anything about who he is on the mound. He’s gotten to where he has by being that soft-contact, ground-ball, missing-barrels pitcher that people are now calling “the ace” of the Cubs’ pitching staff. Trying to be something else probably isn’t the way to go about it.

Instead, just having more weapons in his arsenal should help him reach another level. It’s good to see that Steele really put in the work this winter on a couple of other offerings, because if you’re talking about building on his breakout 2023, I think that’s something that could pay big dividends for him.

That’s it for now. Catch y’all again soon.

PS — A friendly reminder that this newsletter will be Diehard-exclusive during the regular season. Sign up now to ensure they’ll keep coming, plus get access to our 2024 CHGO Cubs season guide and your choice of a CHGO t-shirt, including the ones in our new Chicago collection!

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