The list of ERA leaders from June 2022 to the end of last season is a curious one. A number of the usual suspects populate the leaderboard, like Dylan Cease, Justin Verlander, Shohei Ohtani, and Julio Urías. Then, there’s an unexpected name: Justin Steele. The list quickly returns to the rhythm you’d expect it to, as Max Scherzer, Brandon Woodruff, and Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara aren’t far behind. For a moment, you’re left wondering if you hallucinated Steele’s name. But it’s there—for the last few months of his campaign, Steele kept his earned run total in line with some of the best hurlers in the league. The Cubs lefty tossed 79 innings with a 2.05 ERA, a stronger mark than Clayton Kershaw, Alek Manoah, and Carlos Rodón over that same time period.
Over the first two starts of the 2023 season, Steele has pitched in line with that performance, allowing only one run over 12 innings, including a dominant showing against the Brewers in which he tossed six shutout innings and struck out eight. Just how real is that performance? Steele has never posted overpowering strikeout numbers and lacks overpowering stuff. In a Chicago rotation with room to grow, he’s being asked to toss important innings. Here, we’ll look into what kind of pitcher he’ll be.
Climb to Relevance
A solid but unspectacular prospect, Steele overcame Tommy John surgery in 2017 to rise as high as No. 8 in the Cubs’ prospect rankings in 2019. Per MLB.com’s prospect blurb in 2020, Steele flashed the potential to have two plus offerings, and some team officials considered his slider the best one in the system. Nonetheless, doubts persisted about his ceiling as a starter. Command and control issues plagued his 2019 Double-A campaign, and scouts said they needed to see him reach more consistency in his delivery to throw consistent strikes.
Those initial fears appeared warranted upon his debut in 2021. Over 57 innings with the big league club, mostly appearing out of the bullpen, he walked over four batters per nine innings and was a net negative for the Cubs, earning a 5.52 FIP and a -0.2 fWAR. Though his rise through the minor leagues was powered by his solid fastball and excellent breaking ball, he relied mostly on three pitches in 2021, leading with his fastball but also opting for his slider, sinker, and curveball quite often. He finished the season on a surprisingly high note, tossing seven scoreless innings with seven strikeouts against the Pirates, showing off some of that elusive upside that came through in the minors.
Nerves of Steele.#CubTogether @J_Steele21 pic.twitter.com/KsMDoKrVdo
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 5, 2021
2022, then, proved to be a huge breakthrough for the left-hander. Though he was teetering on the edge of the rotation throughout his rookie year, he started last season with a firm hold on a rotation spot. Throughout the first two months of the season, that decision looked like it might be a mistake. Steele struggled to an ERA above 5 in April and May amid high walk rates, but his underlying numbers showed that he may have been getting unlucky, as his FIP for those months was 3.89 and 2.61.
Then, he morphed into a pitcher getting significantly different results. Over June, July, and August, he threw a 2.05 ERA and a 3.23 FIP, limiting his walk rates and putting together his most consistent stretch as a big league starter ever. Since his first June start last year, he’s only allowed six home runs over 91 innings. He also posted a 55% ground ball rate over that stretch, which is comfortably above average and a good harbinger for success for a pitcher without prominent strikeout stuff. His season was cut short in September by a back injury, ending his surprising run. What follows is some data that works to explain his jump to success.
In 2018, Blake Snell showcased one example of a stellar blueprint for left-handers. By targeting his fastball at the top of the zone and his breaking balls toward the bottom and out of the zone, he baffled hitters for 180 innings on his way to a Cy Young. Given the Tampa Bay Rays‘ pitching development prowess, there’s been a number of different teams and pitchers who have tried to replicate Snell’s model. Next, we’ll look into how Steele could harness his unique arsenal to channel Snell or just follow a different strategy altogether. What follows is data on the two primary pitches thrown by the league’s five best left-handed starters last year, plus Steele.