Cubs: A resurgent Justin Steele has quietly turned the corner of late

(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

Amidst a painfully frustrating stretch for the Chicago Cubs, left-hander Justin Steele has been a rare bright spot for the team, tossing seven innings of one-run ball in each of his last two starts, coming against the Cardinals and Padres – two very solid ball clubs.

Had Steele thrown back-to-back gems against last-place teams, you might take them with a grain of salt, but the fact that both of these performances came against postseason-caliber teams speaks volume to the adjustments Steele has recently made. After learning to establish the low inside fastball, things have began to turn around rather quickly for him.

He has always had decent stuff but has struggled to get those quick and efficient innings necessary to work deep into games. That is, until recently. In the last month, Steele has notched three quality starts and a deeper dive into the numbers suggest more success could be coming.

In 2022, the 26-year-old lefty has just a 1-5 record with a 4.33 ERA. However, a FIP of just 3.22 paints a dramatically more optimistic picture of his work to this point. His recent adjustments have made a huge difference in not only how he attacks hitters, but in the results.

Considering the league average ERA entering action Tuesday sat at 3.98, you start to realize Steele has quietly been one of the best pitchers on the Cubs this season. Aside from one clunker against Cincinnati, his other five starts since May 15 have seen him go 30 innings while allowing just six earned runs, striking out 29 and issuing 11 free passes.

Chicago Cubs: What does Justin Steele have to do to find continued success?

It may sound obvious, but Steele needs to do what he can to keep hitters guessing. He’s got a nice pitch mix that includes a fastball, slider, sinker and curve. Occasionally, he will mix in a change-up to keep hitters on their toes. However, he hasn’t been effective enough with it to really rely on it much.

Obviously, individual matchup data will tell pitchers when to throw what and to whom in order to have the best chance to record an out, but sometimes pitchers can then fall into a bad habit of becoming predictable to hitters and wind up getting hit hard because of it. Here’s how Steele has attacked hitters so far in 2022.

  • Fastball: 40.82% to LHB, 45.96% to RHB
  • Slider: 26.22% to LHB, 16.89% to RBH
  • Sinker: 26.97% to LHB, 20.12% to RHB
  • Curve: 5.62% to LHB, 12.80% to RHB
  • Change: 0.37% to LHB, 3.73% to RHB

In order for Steele to continue rolling the way he has, he will need to continue mixing up his pitches while keeping the walks to a minimum. He’s been absolutely masterful at limiting hard contact (ranks in the 99th percentile) and keeping the ball in the yard – two hallmarks of quality arms.

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He doesn’t have to post double-digit strikeouts every time out, but if he can find a way to keep elevating his ground ball rate (currently 50.9 percent) he will continue his transition into a true innings eater and someone the Cubs can look forward to handing the ball to every five days.