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Last season, Justin Steele asserted himself as one of the Cubs’ top of the rotation starters. In his first start of 2023, he picked up right where he left off.
Using a two-pitch mix of four-seam fastballs and sliders against the Brewers on Saturday, Steele kept Milwaukee batters almost completely off balance. Typically best when attacking with his fastball, Steele leaned more heavily on his breaking pitch – of his 84 pitches, he threw 45 sliders, 36 fastballs, and just three other pitches that weren’t one of those two.
That pitch mix was effective. Steele kept the Brewers scoreless for six innings, striking out 8 while allowing just four baserunners. He walked Mike Brosseau on four pitches to start the game, something Steele chalked up to first game jitters, but limited Milwaukee to three hits otherwise.
“It’s a hell of a start to build on,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said.
Steele struggled to locate his fastball early on; it took until the tenth batter of the game for him to get a called strike on his four-seamer. That’s where the slider helped. He had a 38% whiff rate with his breaking pitch.
Take a look at a couple of examples:
Both to left-handed batter Rowdy Tellez, but once tailing away from him, and once on the inner side of the strike zone. Adbert Alzolay joked with Steele in the locker room after Saturday’s game that Tellez would be having nightmares that night about facing Steele’s slider.
“As far as lefties, I used to hit as well, and I know how being a left-handed hitter how hard it is to hit a left-handed pitcher,” Steele said. “So if you can throw some good breaking balls towards a lefty, I know it’s really hard to stay in there and go with it the other way.”
This is a positive sign of growth for Steele, who took a step forward with his fastball in 2022, benefiting from advice he got from Jon Lester. Steele is often likened to the former Cubs pitcher, and it was early last year when Lester texted a tip to manager David Ross after watching Steele pitch on TV. His advice was to attack on the inside against righties with his four-seam fastball, and Steele used that to help him step into a front-end rotation spot in 2022.
A start like Saturday’s is important because it shows Steele growing even further. When that bread-and-butter pitch wasn’t working early on, he used the slider – manipulating its shape at times that made it look almost like a curveball – so effectively that Brewers hitters weren’t able to sit on it. Typically, when a pitcher struggles with his primary pitch, that’s a recipe for a bad (and short) outing. Not so for Steele.
“His ability to throw for strikes and throw for chase, and throw enough backup sliders to catch the edges is awesome,” Barnhart said. “It makes him extremely difficult on a hitter. It’s a unique mix because you wouldn’t typically throw a bunch of down and in sliders to right-handed hitters or down and in fastballs to right handed hitters without having some damage every once in a while, but that’s where his stuff works so well.”
Steele was aided some by dazzling defense at shortstop by Dansby Swanson, who added three more hits Saturday, giving him six hits in his first two games after going 5-for-41 in spring training.
But Miles Mastrobuoni, who came in as a defensive replacement in right field for Trey Mancini, couldn’t make a needed defensive play in the eighth inning that contributed to the Brewers’ three runs in that frame. Cubs reliever Javier Assad tossed a brilliant seventh inning, but he gave up a hit and a walk to start the eighth, and that ended a 16-inning scoreless streak against the Brewers through the first two games. The Cubs went on to lose, 3-1, scoring only on Ian Happ’s sixth-inning home run.
That doesn’t negate how well Steele pitched, and through the course of a full season, there will be games like Saturday’s, where one or two misplays can prove very costly. The important thing for the Cubs going forward is the outing Steele had.
He was masterful because of how well he used his fastball and breaking pitch, especially the latter when his four-seam wasn’t hitting the zone early. Steele said he has always felt comfortable going fastball/breaking pitch heavy, going back to his days in the minors. And as a burgeoning top-tier starter in the majors, it’s the way he throws those two pitches that’s making him so successful.
“There’s some deception in there, stuff we can’t measure, and then the late movement with the cut on his fastball that rides in,” Ross said. “Guys see it and it just gets off the barrel, whether it’s in and they cheat in and pull it foul.”
Building his confidence in those two pitches will be important for Steele as he goes forward this season. And even more so, being able to adjust from his usual mix when one pitch isn’t finding the right spot.
“The key to success is to continue to know your strengths and hone in on your strengths and value those really highly,” Ross said. “But the more you have other weapons or different sides of the plate that you can execute, things he did really well at times last year – where that backdoor cutter or the two-seamer away, or breaking out the changeup in situations where it calls for it.”
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