Justin Steele flashing his potential – and a little emotion – on Cubs pitching staff
What’s the best part of being a big leaguer?
“The people,” Justin Steele offered during his cameo appearance on Andrew Chafin’s incredible mic’d up segment earlier this week.
When Chafin pushed for a less politically correct answer, Steele changed his tune a bit:
Gotta love the honesty.
Steele is certainly starting to settle into his new life in “The Show” off the field and on it, he’s flashed his enticing potential and is working to carve out a long-term role for himself on the Cubs pitching staff.
Tuesday night was his biggest outing yet, as he came into the game in the 9th inning of Game 2 with a free runner on second base (due to the extra-inning rule) and kept the Dodgers lineup at bay. He struck out Will Smith, induced a flyout, intentionally walked a batter and then struck out Austin Barnes to end the inning and set his team up for the walk-off victory.
It was far and away the most high-leverage situation he had been thrust into in his young career and as he escaped the jam, he unleashed an epic reaction:
That gave Steele his first career MLB victory.
“Justin Steele — what a performance by him,” David Ross said. “A youngster getting thrown into the defending world champs in extra innings. That was a big league performance by Justin. That was nice to see.”
He now has a 3.68 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 6 appearances this season, striking out 12 batters in 7.1 innings against only 2 walks (1 of which was the intentional pass Tuesday night).
“He’s done a great job of attacking the strike zone,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “You talk about young guys controlling their emotions, controlling the moment out there — it’s fun to see him be able to do that but still pitch with some excitement and some emotion.
“Really been impressed with how he’s handled himself and coming in, attacking the strike zone.”
Steele averages nearly 94 mph on his fastball, which is a unique weapon from the left side. He also features a five-pitch mix that includes two different types of fastball — a four-seamer that runs in on right-handed hitters and a two-seamer that darts away from righties.
Hottovy pointed to a particular sequence in last Friday’s game where Steele faced former Cub Nicholas Castellanos. The lefty started him off with a couple of four-seamers and then caught the slugger looking with a sinker that started in off the plate and broke back to catch the edge of the zone.
“The ability to do that with 2 fastballs at 95 from the left side is really impressive,” Hottovy said.
Like several of his teammates, Steele made the most of his time at the Cubs alternate site in South Bend last summer and also added a slider to his repertoire. That pitch has become a gamechanger for the 25-year-old southpaw as it currently rates as his best pitch during his brief MLB tenure, according to FanGraphs.
“The slider is a dominant pitch,” Ross said. “I think it’s a plus pitch for him. He’s throwing it for strikes, throwing it for chase, really good shape and he’s got a lot of confidence in that.”
Steele was the Cubs’ 5th round pick in 2014 and has been one of the most promising pitching prospects in the system for the last half-decade.
He’s worked almost exclusively as a starter in his minor league career but the Cubs have been using him out of the bullpen as a guy who could get three outs or eat up multiple innings.
He doesn’t care what role he’s in right now, just so long as he’s in the big leagues. On the day he was called up to make his MLB debut April 12 in Milwaukee, he spent the entire van ride from South Bend to Wisconsin smiling.
“Thinking back on all the years I’ve worked so hard to get here,” he said then. “Even when I was in kindergarten telling my kindergarten teacher, she asked me what I wanted to be and I told her I wanted to be a baseball player. Just a dream come true for me.”
No matter how 2021 ends up for the Cubs, there will always be a big picture angle to this season.
Jed Hoyer called this a year of transition and a huge part of the reason why is the need to identify players who could be long-term pieces for this team.
In his brief opportunity at the big league level, Steele has teased the potential to become a long-term part of this pitching staff in some capacity.