Pittsburgh Pirates aren't only cause for concern for this Cubs starting pitcher

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs
Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs / Quinn Harris/GettyImages

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Justin Steele was visibly frustrated Thursday night after giving up five earned runs in 5.2 innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. Steele’s last two starts both came against the Pirates, giving up 11 earned runs on 12 hits over those two games. Five of those hits left the ballpark. This has raised some eyebrows and has people asking questions.

So, what’s the deal? Is he just shaking off rust after being out for over a month? Are the Pirates somehow a bad matchup for him? Is there something else?

Steele has made four starts total in 2024, the other two being Opening Night in Texas and his return from the IL against the Padres. In his starts against the Rangers and Padres, he threw 9.1 combined innings, giving up one run on six hits and striking out eight. In his first start against the Pirates last Saturday, he was done in by back-to-back 0-2 hanging pitches that got crushed out of PNC Park. There were no real alarming drops in velocity from Steele; just didn’t locate and execute. There weren’t flashing signs of concerning drops in velocity or stuff in Thursday’s start either; he did fan seven and his defense did not help him out with several misplays. Still, he gave up a bit too much hard contact.

For what it is worth, Steele sports a career 6.69 ERA and 1.4 WHIP in 36.1 innings pitched against the Pirates. His eight home runs given up to the Pirates are the most to any opponent in his career. The team, for whatever reason, seems to have his number. Even when he was shoving last year his numbers against the Pirates (8.00 ERA and 1.8 WHIP) were bad.

Case closed? Let’s look a bit further. There is a matter of looking back how Steele has done overall going back to last September, which has been often pointed out. Unfortunately, a few rough starts over the last few weeks of the 2023 season ended what was looking like a legit shot at the National League Cy Young award. The numbers overall on the season were still great, but they took enough of a hit to knock him out as the favorite.

A deep dive into Justin Steele's recent struggles.

Just looking at his overall performance going back to September 4 of last year, he sports a 5.21 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 2.84 xFIP, 9.9 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 1.2 WHIP in his last nine starts (48.1 innings). Of the 28 earned runs surrendered over that time, 17 of them were against the Pirates in three starts. Outside of those, he had a rough six-run outing against the Diamondbacks in Arizona on September 15, but he pitched great games against the Giants and Diamondbacks at home and did well against the Braves on the road.

So, yeah, circling back to the point above the Pirates really have given Steele a rough time. While the ERA overall going back to the start of September does not look great, the FIP, xFIP (expected FIP), strikeouts and walk numbers don’t look so bad. This can make one feel that it is too early for long-term concern and see how things play out. Steele last September had pitched in more MLB innings than he had before and he is working back from injury now. Time will tell but panic at this point might be a tad premature.

Also, maybe Steele sees ghastly images of pirates in his dreams. Who knows.