Cubs News

Justin Steele has been the best starting pitcher in the National League for months

2 years agoTony Andracki

Justin Steele said he feels like a completely different pitcher now than he was at the beginning of the season.

That’s just fine with the Cubs because the pitcher Steele has been the best starter in the National League.

And it’s not over a small sample size either. Try two months.

Since June 25, no starting pitcher in the NL has a lower ERA than Steele (1.47). The only starter in baseball with a better mark also resides in Chicago (White Sox ace Dylan Cease has a 1.36 ERA in that span).

Steele threw 6 shutout innings Sunday against the Brewers, lowering his season ERA to 3.25 in the process.

In his last 9 outings, Steele has tallied 6 quality starts and 59 strikeouts in 49 innings. He said after Sunday’s outing that he has learned to read swings during games and will pitch more to contact if the situation arises but can also rack up whiffs quickly.

“I’m just constantly learning and evolving from each start moving forward,” Steele said. “This year, I feel like I’ve done a good job of that. Each and every start — whether it was good or bad — taking something from it, learning from it and moving forward with it.

“I think what’s going on right now is kind of like fruits of the labor of what was going on earlier in the season. Just constantly working, trying to get better, figure things out.”

Part of Steele’s success can be traced back to Jon Lester, the Cubs legend who was back at Wrigley Field Sunday:

Lester reached out to David Ross earlier in the season with some advice for Steele on how he should use his 4-seamer on the inside part of the plate to right-handed hitters more.

“I introduced myself to him before the game,” Steele said. “Quick chat, told him I appreciated him reaching out to Rossy earlier in the season. He didn’t have to do that so it was greatly appreciated.”

With his 9 strikeouts Sunday, Steele also climbed the list of Cubs southpaws with the most outings of at least 9 whiffs in a season, coming in just behind Lester:

Justin Steele Jon Lester Graphic

“He’s been awesome,” said Ian Happ, who hit his 100th career homer Sunday. “What he’s been able to do even before the second half but in the second half, what he’s settled in to, that’s who he is. That’s who he can be.

“I think Jonny Lester being here and that advice of attacking the inside of the zone and playing that 4[-seamer] in to open up everything else, he’s taken that and really run with it.

“… He’s continuing to get better. He’s continuing to figure out his game more and asking questions in the dugout. As he goes through, he’s figuring out more and more, ‘alright if I use different pitches in different situations, set hitters up for later in the game’ — all those things that come along with being a big-league starter.”

In a year where Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly and Wade Miley have all missed significant time with injury, Steele has stepped up as the anchor of the Cubs rotation.

The 27-year-old leads the team in starts, innings pitched, strikeouts and quality starts.

And he’s only in his second season in the big leagues.

“From where he’s come from early in the season, it just feels like you’re getting that performance every time he steps foot on the mound,” Ross said. “Impressive every time out. Very consistent, which is hard to be.”

At 113.2 innings, Steele has blown by his previous professional high in a season (98.2 innings in 2017). But he has shown no sign of wearing down thanks to a calculated effort to come into the year with some added pounds.

“I came into Spring Training with some weight on me, kinda assuming I might be pitching a lot this year,” Steele said. “I wanted to be able to last the entire season for the team.

“I think doing that has definitely helped me. Doing the stuff in the training room, the proper stuff in the weight room to keep me on the field. Kudos to the training staff and the strength staff keeping me on the field. I think we’ve done a good job of figuring out my body and knowing what I need to stay on the field.”

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