Justin Steele may be the prime example of a stunted Cubs pitching pipeline that could finally be on the verge of becoming a gusher after delivering nothing but trickles for years on end now. Drafted in the fifth round back in 2014, Steele put up excellent numbers working almost exclusively as a starter through the 2019 season. When he was able to pitch, that is.
A series of injuries prevented him from ever logging as many as 99 innings in a season and he tallied just 85.1 total frames in 2018 and ’19 combined. Still, the Cubs knew the upside was legitimate if they could just get the lefty healthy and maybe develop the changeup they’d been trying to get nearly all of their pitching prospects to master.
“He has a chance for two plus pitches, the changeup has a chance to come as well,” Cubs farm director Matt Dorey said in early 2020. “It’s a matter of just keeping healthy and having an extended amount of time to work through some delivery issues. He fights his delivery at times and strikes will come and go.”
While there is still time for Steele to keep working things out with the change, Tuesday night gave us a glimpse into a possible future as a shut-down reliever. Pitching out of the bullpen would not only allow Steele to either ditch the fourth pitch or simply concern himself less with it, but it helps his fastball play up in the high-mid-90’s.
The real key, though, is a high-spin slider that dips, dodges, and dives like Patches O’Houlihan in his prime. Steele threw the breaking ball 11 times out of 18 total pitches, coaxing a flyout from Max Muncy in between strikeouts of Will Smith and Austin Barnes. The latter was particularly big because the Cubs had just opted to intentionally walk AJ Pollock with a runner already on second due to the silly extra-innings rule.
The score was knotted at 3-3 and a base hit would have given the Dodgers the lead. Instead, Steele executed a perfect pitch that stayed down and away from the right-handed-hitting Barnes, getting a whiff on what would have been a called third strike anyway. The rookie, who’s about as quiet and laid-back as they come off the field, was understandably pumped after the big performance.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 5, 2021
And it wasn’t just the one pitch, as you can see from the clip below that told the world Steele is a dude. Fans outside of Chicago probably would have found out eventually, but getting the full Pitching Ninja treatment has become a rite of passage for young pitchers looking to make their mark. Steele has certainly made his this season and I can’t see any reason to send him to Iowa.
— Justin Steele (@J_Steele21) May 5, 2021
Through 7.1 innings in six appearances, the 25-year-old has racked up 12 strikeouts with just two walks, one of which was intentional. He’s also hit two batters, so take that as you like. His slider has more spin than all but one other lefty in MLB (min. 30 pitches) and his fastball is among the top 12 for lefties this season, which might not mean much to you sans context. Watch Steele pitch, however, and you see how well he can manipulate the ball to shut down opposing hitters.
It’s easy to get caught up in a single performance, so I want to be clear that I’m not expecting Steele to go out and do this every night. But when we’re talking about an organization that has continually rolled out retreads rather than giving their own homegrown pitchers a chance, I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’m fine seeing them try to sink or swim behind some fresh faces.