The Chicago Cubs signed Marcus Stroman before the 2022 campaign and Jameson Taillon in the last offseason. They also brought in Drew Smyly and traded for promising prospect Hayden Wesneski last year.
While most of them have been very good at times, none of them is really an ‘ace.’ That’s a distinction better suited for left-hander Justin Steele.
A fifth-round draft pick in 2014, he is almost 28 now. The road to stardom, unlike some hot prospect or former first-rounder, has been long and full of injuries, struggles, and other obstacles. But here we are, with him sporting an incredible 1.45 ERA and 0.95 WHIP after seven starts in 2023.
In reality, Steele has been dominating since last year. Over a stretch since July 22, 2022 in which he’s allowed two earned runs or fewer in 14 straight starts, he owns a MLB-best 1.24 ERA among those with at least 50 innings.
A 14-start sample is not the largest in the world, but it’s significant enough to raise our attention. He has also struck out 83 hitters in 80.0 innings over that span.
The most impressive thing of all is that he has done all that mainly with two pitches. Yes, he throws his four-seam fastball 60.6% of the time and he goes to his sweeper 35.6% of the time. The remaining 3.8% are a combination of two-seamers, curveballs and changeups.
His four-seamer averages just 92.0 mph. How can a pitcher have a 1.24 ERA over a 14-start sample with a low-90s fastball? Well, the answer is a bit complex.
Steele isn’t overpowering, not with 36 strikeouts in 43.1 innings this season. However, he has learned how to pitch. His command has vastly improved in comparison to his past and even with last season (he had 3.78 BB/9 in 2022 and is at 2.28 this year), he avoids hard contact and he can change the way his fastball looks depending on the situation and what he wants to achieve.
Simply put, Steele is a master of his craft when it comes to fastball shape and movement.
“When I’m going in to righties, I’m thinking straight line through and keep bearing in on them rather than throwing it in and having it leak back over the plate,” he told The Athletic in April. “I’m kind of more on the side of the ball. Still throwing it with true spin, but it’s rotated a little bit so it stays in. When I’m going away to a righty, it looks like a ball the whole time and it just keeps riding and goes toward the plate.”
That is called cut-ride, which is extremely desirable in today’s game. Steele has averaged 0.2 inches of horizontal movement on his four-seamer, which might not sound like much, but it’s the second-most horizontal movement in baseball among those who have thrown at least 200 four-seamers this season. Basically, his four-seamer is a borderline cutter.
Here, you can see how Steele’s fastball moves when thrown in against a righty:
Here, the ride effect becomes evident when he throws away to a righty:
Overall, the way he can take advantage of his fastball and the improvement he has achieved with the sweeper have unlocked a whole new level for him.
His manager recently described the slow, but steady journey he has taken to become one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“When you have the stuff that (Steele) has – and you can get hitters out in the zone with really a two-pitch mix – there is the value. And then you learn how to locate that better. You learn how to backdoor certain things, different sides of the plate, different quadrants within the strike zone and then also other pitches as they develop. That’s a long journey,” Cubs manager David Ross told The Athletic.
Steele also understands the importance of pitch tunneling, which is when pitchers try to make two different pitches travel the same trajectory long enough to look nearly identical through the point when a batter has to decide whether to swing or take the pitch. The idea is to force the hitter into bad decisions at the plate.
Here, you can see how Steele’s four-seamer and sweeper have very similar release points and hitters don’t know what pitch they are facing until it is very close to the plate:
Steele’s recent dominance is also reflected in more advanced stats, such as raw value. This all-inclusive stat examines pitching performance on a per-pitch basis, as opposed to just looking at the outcome of an at-bat. It’s really helpful because a lot of things happen when a hitter is at the plate for us to limit ourselves to ‘home run’, ‘strikeout’, or ‘walk’, for example.
There are two ways to look at raw value. The first one is total raw value, a cumulative stat; and the second one is RV-, an adjusted way to look at how a pitcher performs relative to the league average of 100. For both, lower is better.
In the specific case of Steele, he ranks 10th in MLB with a minus-9.1 total RV. In RV-, he is also eighth with 54. Remember, anything lower than 100 is above average for pitching, so Steele’s RV- is elite.
You could say that RV basically studies how good a pitcher is at getting strikes, achieving what he wants on the mound, and missing bats. There is a way to study all of them individually with strike+, command+ and whiff+, respectively. For all of them, 100 is also league average but higher is better.
Steele’s whiff+ jumped from 98 in 2022 (below average) to 117 this year so far (comfortably above average), his strike+ is up slightly from 96 to 99 and perhaps most importantly, his command+ has risen from 87 to 100.
The way he has limited hard contact is absolutely impressive. This year, he is limiting hitters to a .200/.262/.280 line and a .542 OPS. Only two batters have homered off him this season and his 35 opponent BIP+ (how much damage a hitter does upon contact) is tied with Eduardo Rodriguez of the Detroit Tigers for the best in baseball. Hitters just can’t square him up.
Considering that Steele doesn’t really rely on velocity and has a really good idea of what to do on the mound, there is a lot of sustainability in what he’s doing. The Cubs now have a legitimate ace, a homegrown one at that. It took a while, but Steele has blossomed into a top-tier pitcher in the league.
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