What Cubs’ Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson have learned from veteran teammates
A full major league season can be a real lesson to any starting pitcher that hasn’t gone through the 162-game process before.
“I learned it was long, taxing,” Drew Smyly said with a laugh.
It’s not a cliché to say it’s a marathon — one that typically begins in February and, if you’re successful, ends in late October or early November. For a starter, that means working every fifth day at maximum effort with the spotlight squarely on you as you try to lead your team to a win.
That’s what the Cubs’ young pitchers Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson are learning this season.
“It’s a lot, man. It’s a grind,” Marcus Stroman said. “Obviously, you’re just in uncharted territory. You really don’t know how your body’s gonna react after every start and then obviously the length of the season is way different.”
So, to get through it and have success, you need to have a routine. That applies for the regular season and offseason. Stroman found that out the hard way.
In Spring Training 2015, after his rookie season, Stroman tore the ACL in his left knee and missed 5 months of action before he was back pitching on a rehab assignment in August. That was a lesson for Stroman.
“A lot of people look at things as freak accidents, I don’t,” Stroman said. “I looked at it as essentially my body wasn’t preparing well enough and wasn’t in the proper shape to be able to handle the workload of a major league season and me tearing my ACL in spring was kinda like my body telling itself that.
“Honestly from that point, I changed everything … I changed everything about the way I eat, the way I train, how I live kind of. That was kind of the moment in my career that kind of propelled everything to be honest with you.”
That’s why it’s important that Steele and Thompson find their rhythm — not just on the mound when they start a game, but when they’re in between starts and, in the winter, as they prepare for the next season.
For Steele, that meant having a little extra weight on his body.
In spring, he mentioned he loses weight quicker in the season and didn’t want to come into Cubs camp too light because of that. Doing that has allowed him to stay in a good playing shape and hold up throughout the year.
“I wanted to be able to last the entire season for the team,” Steele said. “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, knowing what I need to stay on the field.”
Success for a starting pitcher comes from as much mental and physical strength as it does raw talent. So you want to stay sharp mentally and physically through an entire season.
“So much of the game now is focused on taking care of your body already — from the minor league level on up — so they kind of come up here with an idea of what they’re looking for and what they need to do to stay healthy,” Kyle Hendricks said. “And, you can see [Steele and Thompson], they’ve picked up the ball every fifth day and been out there, and that’s saying really a lot for guys that young.”
The length of a major league season is what makes it so difficult. In the minor leagues, until this year, the season ended in September.
“You look at the schedule and it’s just — having a whole other month tied into, really — it’s only 30 more games, but it’s a big deal,” Smyly said recently. “Right now, we’d have two weeks left instead of six weeks left. It definitely changes the dynamic.”
That’s why the Cubs want their young pitchers to keep going through the long season, even if it could be uncharted territory. Steele has thrown 119 innings this season, the most he’s ever thrown as a professional (his next highest was 98.2 IP in 2017 in High-A). Thompson is at 104.1 innings and his high was 129.2 in 2018 across High-A and Double-A.
Going through the 162-game grind will help them understand what it takes and as the Cubs continue to build towards playoff appearances in the future, knowing what they feel in this moment and knowing that they would still have two months left in the season is imperative.
“I think there’s value in that, yes, I think knowing what that task feels like. There’s an accomplishment aspect to that,” David Ross said last week. “I remember going back to [the] first time I got to playing a World Series and win and that was done, it’s like, ‘OK, not only is the major league season hard, it feels like that last month is another new season.’
“When that’s done, you’re like how many seasons have I played [this year]? You really feel mentally, physically drained … Those things that we do in spring is to prep the body, to prep the mind, to get physically acclimated to moving the right way, having the at-bats, getting our timing down so we can go through this long season and hopefully get into the playoffs and win the World Series. I think it is important to get to that finish line.”
This learning experience of a season for Steele and Thompson is as much about performances as it is going through the entire process — the good and bad. Both pitchers have had success throughout the season, and each have had their bumps.
For Stroman, that’s one thing he would relay to his younger self.
“I would just tell myself to truly try to stay present as possible and enjoy the journey,” Stroman said. “I think as rookies, you sometimes let things — you kinda lose perspective a little bit and things become wins and loss. Everything becomes success, success, success, all about success at this level.
“Just definitely enjoy it, man, and as much as I say, adversity is great for you. If I didn’t go through those times of adversity, I don’t think I would still be standing here. Enjoy the adversity. Use everything as kind of a stepping stone and kinda build off whatever you go through in life. I think that’s just a recipe to have a pretty good success just in life in general, not even in sports.”
And the veteran starters are there every step of the way to help them out.
“I know when I was younger, you see other lineup cards and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a lot of big names in there, how am I supposed to get that guy out?'” Wade Miley said. “But you don’t really give yourself enough credit, like, ‘I’m gonna get all those guys out. I’m just as good as them. They’re just maybe more well known at the moment but time can change that.’ I think when you’re younger, you’re a little timid at times and you can be overwhelmed but when you have your teammates and experienced guys like Stroman pumping you up and letting you know, ‘you’re nasty, you’re gonna be good, just do your thing.’ I think that gives younger guys a lot of confidence.”