At first glance, Justin Steele’s numbers read like a disaster: 6.17 ERA, 23 BBs, 1.6 K/BB rate, .375 BABIP, a 4.32 FIP, and an astounding 1.84 WHIP in 35 IP. Opponents are batting .298 against him. The only positive stat you can hang a hat on is that he’s struck out 37 batters. It is not what was expected from one of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects heading into the year. Then again, take away one start in which he gave up 8 runs in 2 innings and everything changes a bit. But even then, the ERA only drops down to a still-unacceptable 4.36.
I watched Steele pitch for the seventh time in nine starts on Memorial Day. He struggled constantly and did not attack the strike zone, throwing 81 pitches in just three innings. Many of his offerings were up and the Lugnut hitters were just going with the flow and shooting the ball to right field. In his three innings, Steele gave up six hits, walked three, and struck out three. Somehow, he only gave up two runs thanks in part to two double plays. It was a bit painful to watch.
What’s Gone Wrong?
There is something wrong with Steele beyond just the cold April nights he pitched in early in the season. I don’t think there is anything mechanically wrong with him, rather, he just needs to make small adjustments.
Steele has always been highly thought of as a prospect, as Keith Law of ESPN noted before the 2015 season:
Of all of the young arms in the system, Steele made the strongest impression this summer, an athletic, 6-foot-1 southpaw with good downhill plane and some advanced feel for pitching, especially for a Mississippi high school product. His fastball is in the upper 80s now — but should peak in the low 90s — and where Sands has more present velocity Steele has better projection.
In 2014, Law had predicted the ascension of Gleyber Torrres. His bet on Steele wasn’t far off either as he had a 2.66 ERA in 40.2 innings at short season Eugene.
Heading into this season, MLB Pipeline said:
Steele isn’t the most physical pitcher, and his control and command are still works in progress, so there’s some thought that he’ll wind up as a reliever. But as an athletic lefty with a three-pitch arsenal and a strong competitive streak, he could develop into a mid-rotation starter.
The first line says it all: control and command. He has trouble putting his fastball where he wants it. Sometimes, like on Monday, his curveball was tight and sharp and other times it was big and loopy.
Things for Steele to work on
- Leadoff man – Steele allowed the leadoff man get on base all three times Monday.
- Get ahead of hitters – When he is ahead in the count, hitters average just .157 against him and his ERA is 2.45. When he’s behind in the count, hitters pounce on his pitches at a .368 clip driving up his ERA to 12.96.
- Fastball command – His fastball was either up between the letters and the waist or way down by the ankles on Monday. He could not put it at the knees to save his life. He needs to get it at the knees or just above. Hitters at this level are a lot more disciplined than in short season ball. He needs to be disciplined as well.
- Field his position better – While he is a good athlete, he’s had trouble getting the ball to the first baseman, especially earlier in April.
- Be aggressive – use the fastball more early in the game, put it in the zone, and let the defense do their thing. He has some nice late movement, and coming from the left side, he’s a little deceptive. If he is aggressive in the lower half of the zone, he will be fine.
Steele has been much better in May than he was in April, pitching to a 4.37 ERA and holding hitters to a .239 average compared to .400+ for April. While he is improving, he needs to be more consistent in that development. I remember doing a post similar to this last summer on Trevor Clifton. Over the course of the late summer, Clifton improved a little each start. That is what Steele has to do at this point. No one is expecting him to be Superman and to come out and throw a one- or two-hitter every time.
All that’s expected is that he take care of the little things. Get ahead of some hitters, be aggressive. Make the hitter adjust, take control of the zone and the moment. There’s plenty of time left for him to look more like the Man of Steele yet this season.