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When spring training began, there was really no question that Justin Steele should be on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster.
Barring something out of his own control (like Chicago deciding to utilize his minor league option), Steele wouldn’t be heading back down to the minor leagues.
The only question, then, rested on what exactly his role would be when the Cubs’ 2022 campaign started.
Steele gained experience as both a reliever and a starter in 2021, getting his first taste of the major leagues in 11 appearances out of the bullpen. After a right hamstring strain put Steele on the shelf for a little over a month, he went down to Triple-A Iowa to stretch out and then started nine games down the stretch.
There were the typical rookie struggles, of course, but Steele’s last start in Pittsburgh (seven innings, seven strikeouts and zero runs on just 76 pitches) showcased exactly why Chicago wanted to give him the shot in the first place.
The starter competition was crowded heading into this spring, though. Kyle Hendricks and new additions Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley were immediately expected to be Nos. 1-3 in the rotation. Then manager David Ross said at the beginning of spring training that his plan was to use Alec Mills as a starter. Then the Cubs went out and signed Drew Smyly, who Ross confirmed would also be in the rotation to reporters in Mesa, Arizona, toward the end of camp.
Despite uncertainly in his role, Steele was still willing to do what the team asked of him to make sure he opened up the season in Chicago.
“I’m coming to the spring with the same mindset I do every spring,” he said early on in camp. “I come in with my head down, just ready to work, and wherever the team sees fit to put me, I’ll roll with it. I just want to help the team the best way that I can.”
Miley’s setback at the end of spring training ultimately put him on the injured list to start the regular season, which opened up an opportunity for Steele in the Opening Day rotation. And on Saturday, he took advantage of that chance to pick up where he left off in 2021.
Five innings, four hits, one walk, five strikeouts and, arguably most important, zero runs allowed marked Steele’s box score in his first outing of 2022, a 9-0 Cubs win over the Brewers.
He wasn’t blowing much by hitters, necessarily. Of his 77 total pitches, only five ended up as whiffs. Each of those, however, resulted in strikeouts, showing that when Steele reached that two-strike count, he was seemingly bringing a little bit more to the pitch.
What he lacked in swing and misses, though, he more than made up for in fooling Brewers batters. He earned 14 called strikes from home-plate umpire Lance Barksdale, and as you can see in the image below (per Baseball Savant), he managed to paint the edges of the zone well throughout his five innings of work.
“He’s pitching to his strength. He’s not going away from his strengths,” Willson Contreras said. “That’s something that he needs to keep his mind on.”
The above image also illustrates how much he relied on the one-two punch of his four-seamer/slider combination.
Steele threw 46 four-seamers and 21 sliders, which made up a grand total of 87 percent of his total pitches. That’s a bit of a change from his pitch makeup in ’21, when his four-seamer (45.3 percent) and his sinker (20.2 percent) were the pitches he went to more often than the rest.
Had Major League Baseball had a normal spring training, this would’ve been another spring start for Steele, and him focusing on those two pitches, specifically, would’ve just been par for the course. Still, that commitment to making sure those two pitches were working shows that he’ll keep working on his development well into the season.
While noting that it was an impressive first outing, Ross knows there’s more for Steele to unlock. Whether that’s being able to pitch further into games, raising his pitch count or picking up more swings and misses, Ross knows Steele didn’t necessarily bring everything to the table on Saturday.
“I thought he was in and out of rhythm a little bit,” Ross said. “I don’t think that was the best version of him, but it was a nice performance for Opening Day, for sure.”
Ross and his staff certainly have faith in Steele as a big-league starter, and as the season moves on, expect them to allow the power lefty the room to work through the ups and downs of what should be his first full season as a major league pitcher.
“We need him to be good for us to have success,” Ross said pregame. “He’s a big part of our future.”
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