How Cubs plan to manage Justin Steele’s workload down the stretch
When it comes to the development of a young pitcher, the Cubs coaching staff believe that experience is the best form of growth.
“You gotta get to pitching a full season at some point,” manager David Ross said.
In other words, you can’t just shut down a pitcher when he’s hit a career-high in appearances or innings.
“A lot of what we do is not to be like, ‘Ok if you throw 150 [innings] this year, you can throw 180 [innings] next year,’” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said.
The Cubs believe, like training for a 10k race, you don’t stop and progress a bit more in the future. Instead, the Cubs’ pitching coaches believe they have to prepare players like Justin Steele — or some of their core relievers like Mark Leiter Jr., Julian Merryweather and Adbert Alzolay — to have their bodies ready for the grind of the season.
For Steele, that preparation came in 2022.
His season ended in late August last season when he was placed on the 15-day IL with a back injury. But that didn’t mean his workload was finished. The Cubs made a conscious effort to ramp him back up after he recovered, and he still pitched in controlled settings on a starter’s schedule to simulate the feel of going through the full season.
“It’s more to like understand what your body is like at those innings counts and what you need to do to continue to prepare and what you can push through and what you can’t; what to take to the next level,” Hottovy said. “I think any of the things that he went through last year and the experience and the stuff at the end of the year is really important to have something to fall back on and learn from this year.”
So, this year, while he hits a career-high in innings (138 after 6 innings Thursday against Pittsburgh), the environment shouldn’t feel too different. His previous career high was 119 innings set last season. Thursday’s outing in Pittsburgh was another quality start for Steele, he struck out 6 and allowed just 2 earned runs on 6 hits and a pair of walks.
“Going through that [in 2022] was very important,” Steele said. “I put all of that work into that offseason following that just to make sure I would be ready for August, September and hopefully October and November and all that stuff.
“So this offseason I put the right amount of work in to make sure that my body was in the correct position for these moments and stuff. I really like where I’m at.”
The experience last season doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t monitor the lefty closely, though.
“We do a good job as an organization of looking at all the data and make sure anything’s not red-flagging,” Hottovy said. “As long as he’s feeling good and we’re able to get the work in between outings, we’re gonna keep building on what he’s been able to do.”
And for both parties, they hope that means more and more success.
“But if he’s healthy and we feel like he’s able to pitch efficiently, we’re gonna put him out there,” Ross said. “That’s the only way we’re gonna get to the postseason in my mind.”