There are times when you can see right away that pitcher just doesn’t have it, maybe even from his first few throws. Such was the case with Justin Steele on Sunday. It was evident the lefty didn’t have a feel for his pitches as he walked the first two batters he faced and, though he also got two strikeouts in the inning, Steele appeared to be forcing things.
It was almost as thought he didn’t trust any of his pitches as he ended up handing out five free passes over three frames.
“I was just fighting myself, having to constantly make adjustments to the pitch I just threw before, so I was having to battle out there,” Steele explained. “I was more so evaluating the pitch I just threw and then having to make the adjustment that I felt I needed to, so it was one of them things, you know, just kinda felt lethargic, just like my body was moving underwater.
“It was an adjustment, having to try to keep my body going and stuff, but moving forward it’s something I’ll adjust to.”
These outings will happen from time to time, now it’s just a matter of learning from it and perhaps trying not to think too much out there on the mound. The good news here is that he got this one out of the way in a game that didn’t matter, plus he threw more in the bullpen and is now built up to around 85 pitches. Far more concerning than Steele’s outing was that of Keegan Thompson, who struck out two batters and has yet to allow a run in four outings.
Thompson has only allowed one hit in that time as well, so how can anyone reasonably call his performance concerning? Good question, let’s discuss that. First of all, he has yet to go more than an inning this spring, not ideal for someone who’s expected to work long relief. Adbert Alzolay, who is serving in more or less the same role, has recorded at least four outs in three of his last four appearances.
An even bigger issue that has become all too apparent is Thompson’s decreased fastball velocity, which is down 3-4 ticks from last season. The righty averaged right around 94 mph as a reliever last year and was routinely touching 95-96, so sitting around 91 and touching 92 at this point in the spring is borderline alarming.
90, 91, 80, 91, 88, 91, 86, 78, 86, 92, 87, 86, 90, 91, 90, 91, 78, 91.
Keegan’s velocity by pitch that inning (I’m too far away to match with pitch type). Continuing a trend AZ Phil @thecubreporter has noted all spring: velo is down.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) March 19, 2023
I certainly don’t know what’s at the root of that decrease, though the most common speculation is that Thompson is nursing an injury. It’d be pretty irresponsible for the Cubs to keep rolling him out there if they know he has an issue, especially since his velo has been down the whole time, so it could be a matter of something causing him to be behind schedule in his ramp.
There’s also the possibility that he’s fighting mechanical issues, or perhaps he’s struggling with something on the mental side as he adjusts to a reality in which he’s not going to be a starter. He was much better in the bullpen and his stuff has played up better in that role, but he had also been attacking those relief appearances as a rolling audition for the rotation.
Okay, but we still haven’t gotten to the root of the concern over Thompson’s velocity dip. After all, velo isn’t the be-all, end-all of performance, and the results through four innings — 0.00 ERA, 1 H, 5 K, 2 BB — sure seem to indicate he’s pitching well. Some pitchers, however, really need to have that extra juice.
Remember the whole thing about him being better as a reliever? It might not seem like much, but being on one side or the other of the 94 mph threshold made an enormous difference in Thompson’s results. We’re talking over 100 points in wOBA allowed and a massive jump in strikeout rate when he threw harder.
It’s easy to say velo matters, but for Keegan Thompson it really does.
2022 hitters against Keegan’s FBs
<94 mph: .398 wOBA, 12.7% K-rate
94+ mph: .286 wOBA, 28.2% K-rate
— Greg Zumach (@IvyFutures) March 19, 2023
If they haven’t already, the Cubs need to get to the bottom of this posthaste. My hope is that it’s just a combination of minor factors that can be mitigated in short order without a trip to the IL. It may just be a matter of Thompson starting the season in Iowa to continue building up to the point that he’s able to truly cut it loose. There’s quite a bit of young pitching depth in the organization, but the Cubs will be better if Thompson is among that group.