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Justin Steele is the key to Cubs' playoff hopes

Jared Wyllys Avatar
August 19, 2023

For David Ross, the roadmap for getting the Cubs to the playoffs is simple. It runs through Justin Steele.

It’s easy to see why. In a lot of ways, Steele has been the only consistent and reliable starter in Ross’s rotation. He earned his 14th win of the season Saturday, beating the Royals 6-4, and notched his 17th quality start in the process.

“If we’re going to make the playoffs, he’s going to be a big part of that,” Ross said. “So he’s going to take the ball. He wants the ball. We want him to take the ball.”

But it’s Steele’s reliability that has made things somewhat less simple for Ross. With the Cubs in the hunt for a postseason spot, Steele is increasingly important even as he has surpassed his previous career high in innings pitched. After Saturday’s start, Steele has logged 132 innings this season, already 13 more than last year. Especially with a young pitcher, there is a natural tendency to worry a little over how he will handle his first full season as a starter.

Particularly in Steele’s case, because back issues ended his 2022 season a month early. A problem that he says arose because of late-season fatigue.

“Just running a little bit out of gas. Back ends up tightening up,” Steele said.

But he was able to throw bullpen sessions last September and spend the offseason preparing to pitch for a full year in 2023. Other than a short stint of forearm tightness in June, Steele has delivered on that offseason work. But it was around this time last year that he ran into trouble, so the next few starts could show how well his offseason work paid off.

And unlike in 2022, the Cubs are in the hunt for a playoff spot. They dug a standings hole in May and then spent June, July, and into August climbing out of it. Thanks to a 38-28 record since June 1, Steele is in a position where he needs to be the guy in the rotation. 

Marcus Stroman going down on August 1 with a right hip injury and then potentially for the rest of the season with a broken rib cartilage that emerged earlier in the week makes Steele’s job all the more important. And all the more challenging.

“He’s one of our best pitchers. You gotta put trust in him,” Ross said. “[We’re] going to ride him, give him the ball when in doubt.”

In Saturday’s start, Steele used 99 pitches to get through six innings and held Kansas City to two runs. Ross has said many times that he does not necessarily monitor pitch counts as much as high-stress innings when deciding the right time to pull a starter. Steele pitched his way out of jams in the second and sixth innings, finishing off the sixth with Salvador Perez in scoring position by getting Matt Duffy looking at a 1-2 fastball that nipped the outside of the zone.

As far as high-stress innings go, that was a mild case. Regardless, Steele’s ability to manage innings like the sixth in Saturday’s game has been a part of his maturation into the staff ace this season. With Stroman out and the other spots in the rotation still something of a question mark in terms of performance from start to start, Steele’s ability to stay on the mound for the next several weeks is magnified.

Young pitchers’ health can be monitored much more closely than in years past, and that additional information can be useful, but it risks becoming paralyzing to a manager trying to figure out how to guide a guy like Steele through a late-season playoff push, and then – hopefully – the postseason itself.

“You gotta get to pitching a full season at some point,” Ross said. “We measure everything so much now. You try to make a reason for everything. I don’t know what Roy Halladay’s first full season looked like. I’d like to go back and see what metrically his numbers would be and did that factor in.”

Halladay’s trajectory was a little different than Steele’s; he threw 149 innings in 1999, his second season in the majors. But it took until his fifth season, in 2002, for him to make as many starts as Steele has this year. For what it’s worth, that year Halladay went from 105.1 innings in 2001 to 239.1 and being an All-Star and 19-game winner the following year. 

It’s not a perfect comparison, but the point probably stands. Eventually, a guy like Steele has to just go out and get the job done for a full season. He put in the work during the winter to learn from his injury at the end of 2022, and mentally, Steele takes a day at a time approach to his job.

After Saturday’s win, he joked that he can’t compare how he feels now to how he felt back in April and May because he doesn’t remember the specifics of those starts and might not be able to tell you what day of the month it is now. When it’s time to take the ball and go to the mound, he puts his hat on and does the job. He is forward-focused.

Getting to the playoffs isn’t all on Steele, of course. Cody Bellinger has jump-started the offense since he returned from a leg injury in mid June. Not coincidentally, the Cubs’ best stretch of play has been since Bellinger came back to the lineup. On Saturday, he homered twice and hit a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning. 

And Jeimer Candelario, acquired in a trade with the Nationals on July 31, has batted .385 with a 1.044 OPS since joining the Cubs. His steady defense has helped the Cubs win games too. Against the Royals Saturday, he fielded back-to-back tough grounders to end the second inning.

“We gotta play clean baseball. If you’re going to be a playoff team, you gotta play clean defensive games,” Candelario said. “You’re waking up knowing you’ve got a really good chance to win a ballgame. And we’re fighting for the playoffs. For us to be there we’ve got to do the right things.”

Five games from now, Steele will make his next start. The Cubs will have to keep trying to win without him between now and then, and as August ends and the calendar turns to September, Ross will continue to blend the surplus of information he has access to about how Steele is feeling with the old-fashioned instincts of a guy who has been around the game for a long time.

“We can’t panic if something does pop up,” he said. “We continue to make the best guess we can as far as health-wise, but if he’s healthy and we feel like he’s able to pitch efficiently, we’re going to put him out there. And that’s the only way we’re going to get to the postseason in my mind.”

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