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The general public won’t know which pitchers and reserve position players will join the elected starters for the 2023 All-Star Game until 4:30 p.m. CT on Sunday. The Cubs didn’t have anyone named to the starting lineup for the National League, so they’re guaranteed at least one name to be revealed then. While there’s a good chance they have multiple selections — Dansby Swanson could get the nod as the backup shortstop, and Marcus Stroman might just be the NL’s starting pitcher — one first-time name should be included on the roster: Justin Steele.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Steele has been among the best pitchers in Major League Baseball this season. At the end of the Cubs’ 10-1 win over the Guardians on Friday, his 2.6 fWAR ranked third in the NL and sixth in baseball among qualified starters. Both his 2.43 ERA and 1.03 WHIP topped the NL while his barrel rate (5.4 percent) ranked third, and nobody in MLB had a better hard-hit rate (28.6 percent).
Really, Steele is having one of the best seasons of any starting pitcher in baseball — one that makes him deserving of a spot in the All-Star Game on July 11 in Seattle.
“He’s a horse, man,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I don’t know. Every time he takes the bump, he feels like a guy that it’s ‘win’ day. He loves to take the ball. I think his competitive nature and how you see him lock it in even more so when kind of things get a little bit awry or a little bit hairy, and he’s there competing his tail off.”
His outing Friday afternoon didn’t start the way he wanted. He hit Cleveland’s first batter, Tyler Freeman, in the foot. Then when the next hitter, Amed Rosario, hit a comebacker to the mound, Steele threw the ball into center field trying to turn two.
But in what has become typical Steele fashion, he sent down each of the next 12 hitters, striking out five (of his six total) in that span.
“I kind of overcooked the slider, hit him in the foot with it,” Steele said. “Then got the double play ball that I wanted, and then overcooked that one as well and threw it into center field. But I really liked how I was able to regain my composure and just make some pitches and then kind of was able to get in a groove after that.”
That’s just who Steele has become over the past year.
Remember early last June, when Ross’ former teammate, Jon Lester, reached out to the Cubs’ skipper to pass along some advice for the rising southpaw?
“Lester was talking to Rossy about my outings and stuff,” Steele recalled to CHGO during a conversation at the Cubs Convention, “and he was saying, ‘If he could just hone in on that fastball low and in to the righty, it opens up a lot more doors.’ If I’m going there and I miss arm side, that miss is still in the strike zone, still a competitive pitch. Whereas if I’m aiming high and I miss high, it’s a non-competitive pitch. It’s kind of a waste pitch. You’re just adding to your pitch count.”
That conversation happened a couple days before Steele gave up just one earned run over seven innings against Cardinals on June 5, 2022, his best start of the season up to that point. Getting those tips from Lester probably wasn’t the turning point of his career — he said Friday he likes to take “something from each and every person you encounter, just to learn something, whether it’s good or bad” — but his rise since that start against St. Louis is notable.
From then through Thursday, among starters with at least 150 innings pitched, Steele’s 2.34 ERA in that stretch ranked second in all of baseball. A back injury that ended his 2022 before September and a left forearm strain that put him on the shelf earlier this month did cost him some time. But those seem to have been merely bumps in the road on his rise to becoming an All-Star-level pitcher.
Steele already went into Friday with nine quality starts through his first 14 outings in 2023. So of course, he went out and tossed 6 1/3 shutout frames to snap the Cubs out of their four-game losing streak.
“Steele did an unbelievable job getting us right back in there,” said Nick Madrigal, who homered for the first time as a Cub in the sixth inning. “I think the last couple of games, we’ve been in a little bit of a rut, but he’s a big-time pitcher. It was huge for our whole team.”
Steele may not yet be a household name, but he’s got All-Star credentials this season, for sure.
Ross said it’s “pretty obvious to me” that Steele is deserving. His teammates continue to make the case for him on social media. Even Steele said the idea of making his first All-Star team has crossed his mind (which wouldn’t be the case if he didn’t think he was having that kind of season).
Being the Cubs’ first starter since Lester in 2018 and first homegrown starter since Jeff Samardzija in 2014 to get the All-Star nod would obviously be special for Steele.
Still, his main goal is help the Cubs win ballgames when he takes the mound. If he continues to do his job at the level he has been, those accolades will come with it.
“It’d be quite the honor. It’d be really cool, another notch on the belt,” Steele said of potentially being named an All-Star. “But I just kind of take pride in showing up each and every day when the ball is handed to me and just giving my team the best chance to win the game that day.”
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