Rookie starter Justin Steele shows progress in latest start against Reds
As a member of the Cubs’ starting rotation, Justin Steele has shown the ability to be versatile.
“I think he’s a really good example of basically letting the game dictate who you are at times,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said of Steele on Sunday.
In his first big-league start, he pitched 5 innings and allowed 3 runs while striking out just one batter. His next two starts, he picked up 5 strikeouts in each outing and allowed 4 or less runs but didn’t last past the 4th inning in either.
“If he wants to go out and be a swing and miss pitcher he could and he’s gonna be 4 innings and 85 pitches at times,” Hottovy said. “That’s just when you’re out chasing swing and miss and out chasing strikeouts, that can happen.”
That doesn’t mean either type of start is more effective than the other. But Hottovy would like Steele to read and understand the game situation more and be able to pivot to the type of pitcher he needs to be given the situation.
“First inning, two outs, nobody on, I need an out,” Hottovy said. “A strikeout’s great, but I really need the punchouts when it’s in high leverage situations and stuff.”
With two outs and nobody on, it’s important to attack the zone and force the hitter to put the ball in play and get an out that way. If Steele is going for a strikeout in that situation, he’s using more pitches and showing more of his arsenal early in the game, which allows the hitter a better idea of what to expect.
“That way when you’re coming up later in the game with high leverage situations, you haven’t shown him that fastball up and in or the that riding, cutting four-seamer, the nasty slider,” Hottovy said.
Monday against the Reds, Steele again showed the ability to be a contact pitcher and a strikeout pitcher. In the 1st inning, with a runner on second and 2 outs, Steele was able to punch out Eugenio Suárez on a curveball low to escape the threat.
In the 3rd inning, he struck out Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson to start the inning and induced a liner from Nick Castellanos that went off his left triceps that was fielded for an out to end the inning. Then, he had a 10-pitch inning where he induced three groundball outs in the 4th.
He was in control, much like he was in his last outing, when he pitched 5 scoreless innings of 1-hit ball against Minnesota.
“Similar to Minnesota, had command of my two-seam, four-seam for the most part of the first 5 innings,” Steele said.
He ran into trouble in the 6th inning. He walked Stephenson, allowed a double to Castellanos, and then hit both Suárez and Asdrubal Cabrera to bring in a run. After that, Andy Green turned to Codi Heuer. Two more runs scored that were charged to Steele. His final line had 3 runs on 4 hits with 4 strikeouts in 5+ innings of work.
Part of his issues in that inning were from him forcing pitches, as he said.
“I was just up there thinking like, ‘make this pitch,” ‘do this,’” Steele said. “I hit somebody with a slider. That’s just a yanked slider. I’m trying to make it nastier than I need to. Just throw a good one rather than forcing, trying to make it more nasty than it needs to be.”
That in itself is a learning experience for Steele.
“Just gotta take what I’m doing through them first 5 innings and just keep it going,” Steele said. “Just moving forward, wanna get through that 6th and 7th.”
And that’s what the Cubs are taking away from each outing of his: he’s learning from each and improving as he goes along.
“The beauty of him so far is he seems to be picking something up from every outing and learning and growing,” Andy Green said. “There’s some real growth opportunities in that 6th inning going forward. I don’t think we could be any more encouraged by what we saw in the first 5 innings.”