Cubs’ Justin Steele looks to back up his breakout 2023: ‘I gotta do it again’

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MESA, Ariz. – Craig Counsell wasn’t tipping his hand about who will get the Opening Day start for the Chicago Cubs. But the manager did admit that the designation was more than just a ceremonial achievement.

“It’s earned, right?” Counsell said. “I really look at it that way as much as anything.”

Kyle Hendricks has the longest track record and gets as much respect and trust as anyone in the Cubs rotation. Perhaps Shota Imanaga proves to be the type of pitcher who starts future Opening Days. The Cubs would surely take that result.

But this decision likely won’t be too complicated for Counsell. When it comes to earning that start, nobody has a better case with the Cubs than Justin Steele.

After a breakout season that led to a fifth-place finish in National League Cy Young Award voting, Steele is attempting to back up his season with another strong performance. That mission likely starts on March 28 when the Cubs kick their season off against the defending champion Texas Rangers.

“If it happens, it happens,” Steele said of that Opening Day assignment. “It’s not something I put too much focus on.”

Steele, 28, has personal goals for this season, but he’s keeping them simple. The lefty wants to top 180 innings and push for 200 — a number only five pitchers reached last summer — and make more than 30 starts.

Counsell suggested that to continue to thrive, Steele must accept that just because last season was a success, it’s not safe to assume this season will be as well.

“The season is not going to go exactly how it went in 2023 and being able to adapt and adjust to that (is important),” Counsell said. “Then being able to adjust to a league trying to make adjustments to him. It’s never really the same. You rely on your experience, but you have to be willing to change things up. That’s what the great ones do.”

Something seemed to click for Steele midway through the 2022 season when self-doubt gave way to consistent success. He posted a 2.05 ERA over his final 14 starts (79 innings) that season. It led to an impressive 2023 during which he accumulated 173 1/3 innings with a strong 3.06 ERA.

Steele is hoping to mix in his sinker, changeup and even his curveball more often in 2024. But he said similar things last spring and was able to thrive despite rarely going beyond his bread-and-butter offerings: his four-seamer and slider. Still, as hitters become more familiar with his arsenal, it can’t hurt to try and expand upon his bag of tricks. For now, though, it’s clear he’s doing something right.

Over three starts against Counsell’s Milwaukee Brewers last summer, Steele allowed just three runs over 18 innings while striking out 21 and walking just two. Counsell saw his players coming back to the dugout baffled more often than not and understands why facing Steele can be so frustrating.

“He just throws a baseball in a way and it does a little something different each time,” Counsell said. “That is hard for hitters. Hitters don’t like what they don’t see very often. They calibrate to a movement on a pitch and then when it moves differently the next time they’re never really sure what to expect. That’s what makes it hard for them to square up the baseball on him. That’s what he’s good at. It’s unique. That’s what makes you say, ‘Why can’t we hit him?’”

It was in that 2022 season that Steele learned how to pitch more aggressively with his fastball but also developed an understanding of how unique his arsenal had become. His confidence seemed to soar in 2023 and he became comfortable on the mound. He stuck to a simple approach and was dialed into what he needed to do to succeed.

Data makes it seem that Steele has just two pitches. But the way the pitches act makes him tougher to handle than the typical two-pitch starter. Depending on how he throws it, his four-seamer can have cutter-like action or typical four-seam riding action. His slider can be more horizontal at times and move with more depth at others. With simple mental cues, he’s mastered how to manipulate the pitches and the locations where they play best, out and around the zone.

Perhaps the oddity of how Steele’s pitches work is part of why doubters remain. The overall metrics don’t blow anyone away because the same pitch type can be shaped differently depending on the hitter, situation and what Steele wants to do. Steele avoids barrels, can limit long balls and avoids walks. Those statistical strengths aren’t as sexy as strikeouts or upper-90s heat.

Still, pitchers like Arizona Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen and the San Francisco Giants’ Logan Webb perform similarly and have earned trust because they’ve been able to do it for multiple seasons. Now, Steele wants to do the same.

“I really appreciate everything that happened last year,” Steele said. “It was cool to do it and prove to myself that I could do it. Now it’s just like, no one cares anymore, I gotta do it again.”

(Photo of Justin Steele throwing on Feb. 20: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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