Chicago Cubs News: A deep analysis of how Justin Steele can succeed

Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs
Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs / Jamie Sabau/GettyImages

In the second half of the 2022 campaign, the Chicago Cubs enjoyed a breakout season from Justin Steele. After struggling with a 5.40 ERA by the end of May, something needed to change in a major way for Steele if he was going to remain in the Cubs' rotation. It was as the calendar flipped to June that he did so, and from there went on a rampage that turned him from a back end of the rotation guy to someone clearly penciled in for an important role moving forward.

In June, Steele recorded a 3.03 ERA, pitching back-to-back starts where he recorded 7.0 innings and only allowed one earned run per contest. He finished the first half with a 4.15 ERA, but in July, he began to break out, recording a 2.11 in 21.1 frames. In the second half of the season, before back issues flared up, Steele was among the league leaders in ERA, posting a mark of three earned runs over 28 innings, good for a 0.96 ERA. Steele's ERA was lowered to 3.18, and he then went on the IL for the remainder of the season after posting a career-high in innings with 119.

Now, as we look ahead to 2023, what can Steele do to improve further? There's only a little room for improvement in the way he pitched in August. We're talking about one of the better months recorded in baseball, but there were many exciting stats that led to him becoming the best pitcher in Chicago.

Steele recorded a 51.2% groundball rate while limiting his hard-hit percentage to 25.9%. It's going to be a challenge for extreme groundball pitchers to keep their BAA's to a minimum with the banning of the shift, hence the extra emphasis on defense this season with arguably the league-best up in the middle defense in Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner.

It wasn't just all grounders for Steele, though. He recorded 126 punchouts in his 119 innings, good for a 24.6 K%. Substantial changes included a wOBA of .296, down from .332 in 2021. Also, he managed to lower his slug% to .339, down from .437 the year prior.

Most notably, Steele changed up his pitch mix rather dramatically in 2022. In 2021, he utilized his fastball at 45.7%, sinker at 20.1%, slider at 16.6%, curveball at 15.5%, and change-up at 2.1%. This past season, the fastball usage shot up to 57.0%, with his slider seeing an uptick to 30.8%. He was successful in keeping hitters guessing in 2022. Moving forward, he will have to do more of the same in order to sustain the same level of achievement. As hitters become more privy to a higher two-pitch mix, I expect Steele to mix in a third offering a little more in 2023 to remain unpredictable.

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For 2023, Fangraphs projects him for a 3.83 ERA in 143.0 IP. I'll take that with a grain of salt, as his 2022 ZiPS projected him for a 4.58 ERA in 74.1 innings. During those three months, from June through August, Steele recorded a stellar 2.05 ERA in his final 79 innings before landing on the IL. If he can continue anything close to that mark, he can be the ace of this Cubs pitching staff. He must try to mix in another pitch more effectively to keep hitters guessing in 2023.