Justin Steele Keeps Learning from His Elders as Jon Lester Tries to Help Cubs Rebuild for Second Time
Jon Lester ushered in the greatest era of Cubs baseball in modern history when he opted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The lefty might yet be able to play a role in Jed Hoyer’s “Next Great Cubs Team,” though it’s going to have to come from a deer stand rather than the mound. More than seven years after he personally flung open the window of contention, Lester is trying to help his old battery-mate crack a new window to allow a little breeze.
Though he’s got no designs on becoming a pitching coach, Lester still follows the Cubs and has a soft spot for fellow southpaws. So when he saw something in Justin Steele‘s performance, he felt moved to share a little advice.
“Jon Lester texted me the other day about something with Steele,” David Ross explained. “I was able to pass the message along there and talk about how he used to pitch.”
Rather than a series of heatmaps and a treatise on how Steele’s seam-shifted wake and spin efficiency indicated a need to alter his pitch sequencing, Lester’s observations were simple and to the point. Not that you’d expect anything else from him.
“Rossy called me into his office and said Lester called him and had a few tips for me,” Steele told the media after his start. “One of the main things was establishing the four-seam command, down and in to righties on that inner third of the righties. He said establishing that would kind of open up everything else, and I took that into my next bullpen and was really focusing on that and then took it into the game.”
The additional guidance paid off as Steele worked seven innings with just two total runs allowed, scattering seven hits and walking three while striking out just one. Even though Steele’s whiff percentage of 17.1 was much lower than usual, he generated grounders at a 72% clip that is well above either his average or the rest of the league. The performance was reminiscent of those we saw on occasion from a post-prime Lester getting by more on guile and sheer force of will than stuff.
At just 26 years old, Steele isn’t yet to the point where he needs to figure out how to reinvent himself after losing several ticks from his fastball. Nor is this an indication that he’ll become what Lester was from 2008-16, though what a development that would be. The big takeaway, if it’s fair to say that about one game, is that Steele is still learning how to pitch.
Except it’s not just one game or even one former great whose advice Steele has used over the years. We heard him talk a few weeks ago about being more aggressive and attacking hitters in the zone early, a strategy that led to his best start of the season in Arizona. And if we want to rewind even further, we can go back to Steele hitting up Cole Hamels for help on his changeup.
“He was just playing catch and he threw a bullpen,” Steele shared back in January of 2020. “Obviously he has a really good changeup and my changeup’s kinda shaky at times, so I just asked him, ‘Hey, how do you hold your changeup?’
“I was just kinda asking him as a baseball player. He just sat there, showed me some different things with it, so that’s just kinda how it went.”
Though it’s still a very small part of his repertoire, the changeup could play a bigger role as Steele continues to evolve on the mound. More than the pitch itself, his willingness to seek out and implement the wisdom of other successful pitchers is going to help him along the way.
Lester came to the Cubs as an established winner who was expected to lead a staff that would be complemented by a group of young position players. That plan worked to perfection, at least until the foundation crumbled when the organization failed to develop pitching from within. Now Lester is playing a role, albeit very subtle, in turning things around and building from the inside out.
Will it work? I have no idea, but I’d give my kingdom for a viral clip of Steele babbling to a media scrum as someone pours an ice-cold beer down his back.