Among myriad individual decisions and outcomes we could all point out, the broader failure to develop homegrown pitching was a faulty cornerstone of the Cubs’ championship foundation that eroded far faster than anyone predicted. The plan was to have a bunch of young arms coming up to offset the increasing cost of position players who needed to be extended or paid increasing arbitration salaries.
Better late than never, right?
With all due respect to Javier Assad, who deserves his own feature and will likely get one if and when I ever slow down enough to give him his proper due, I want to look specifically at Justin Steele and Adbert Alzolay. Part of that is recency bias from Tuesday’s win in which Steele started and Alzolay closed, but we have to go back more than three years to Cubs Convention in January of 2020 to find the real roots of this story.
I had the chance to interview both young pitchers, one of whom had just debuted the prior season while the other was still trying to stay healthy enough for his talent to shine. What will always stick out to me is that both talked extensively about trying to develop their changeups. Alzolay went so far as to call the coming season the “changeup year” and Steele spoke of altering his grip after picking Cole Hamels‘ brain the previous spring.
As of this post, they’ve combined to throw 26 total changeups, less than 0.9% of their total combined repertoire. Those of you who’ve been following the Cubs’ system for a while probably recall that the changeup was the pitch du jour on the development side for quite a while. It seemed like every young pitcher was trying to perfect their offspeed stuff, which made it feel at times like the organization was trying to pound square pegs into round holes.
It’s not a coincidence that the entire pitching infrastructure has been gutted, both in terms of personnel and philosophy, in the time since those aforementioned interviews. The Cubs went so far as to expose Ryan Jensen, the No. 27 overall pick in 2019 to waivers earlier in August, losing him to the Mariners for nothing. They also traded fellow 2019 draftee DJ Herz to Washington in the Jeimer Candelario deal, further depleting the ranks of a class that may have been Jason McLeod’s undoing as the club’s player development boss.
While I do believe there’s still plenty of work to be done on the tinkering front — see Jameson Taillon and all the sweeper stuff this past offseason — Steele and Alzolay are examples of the Cubs letting pitchers find their own way. In this case, the paths have diverged quite a bit from most expectations. Not all, though. At the risk of hitting a sour note, I’m going to toot my own horn for saying back in late 2017 that Alzolay “might be exactly what the Cubs need in the bullpen.”
I don’t think my crystal ball was quite so clear on Steele, but then-farm director Matt Dorey was very bullish on the lefty’s potential. At the time, all the focus was on another lefty who had ace written all over him. Fast forward 43 months or so and I’m going to go ahead and say the hype around Steele has far exceeded that of Brailyn Márquez.
“The upside is legitimate as a left-hander that’s really athletic with a great arm,” Dorey said at that same CubsCon. “He has a chance for two plus pitches, the changeup has a chance to come as well.
“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.”
Steele is second in MLB with a 2.69 ERA and he’s coming off of a shutout win against the Brewers in which he had to gut out a career-high 111 pitches that included a season-high 29 tosses in the 1st inning. He also took a comeback liner to the left leg in the next frame and shrugged it off as he just got better over the rest of the game. He’s now logged 25 more innings than in any other season of his life, which speaks to the work he’s put in. Even more impressive, those extra frames have come in just one more start than he made all of last year.
In addition to changes he’s made physically to withstand the toll of the season, cutting his walk rate to 5.2% — nearly half of his 10.1% average coming into this season — has improved his efficiency and ability to work deep into games. He’s become the definition of an ace pitcher, the guy everyone looks to when the Cubs absolutely need a win. To wit, he became the first Cubs pitcher to win 15 of his first 25 starts since Jake Arrieta in 2016.
“That’s what we’re expecting him to do,” David Ross said after Steele’s previous start in Pittsburgh. He’s at that level now. He’s our horse. We’re going to lean on him.”
Wins aren’t the best measure of a pitcher’s performance, but it still says a helluva lot that Steele’s 15 victories top the MLB leaderboard. Of course, he doesn’t get a W on Tuesday without help from the bullpen. Alzolay notched his 22nd save, which is good for 16th in baseball on the season, and if we start the clock with his first save on May 6, the righty is tied for 8th in MLB.
But the real line of demarcation is July 4, when Alzolay blew his first and only save of the season. He had gotten just four previous opportunities on the year as Ross played musical chairs with the role, rotating between several veterans with, ideally, favorable matchups. A rough outing like Alzolay had against the Brewers in which he gave up two runs on four hits could have cost him a chance to close games. Instead, he saved the Cubs’ next three wins and his 18 saves since July 5 are four more than anyone else in the majors.
The slider has been a huge part of that success after debuting it back in 2020 with a movement profile that had many thinking it was a curveball. Former CI stalwart Brendan Miller may have actually been the first to note it at the time and we’ve since seen it become Alzolay’s go-to offering, with over 45% usage this season. No one, including Alzolay, could have predicted at the time that a pitch he hadn’t thrown before would develop like that while the change would wither and die on the vine.
That’s a credit to not only the pitcher himself, but the entire organization for not trying to force something different just because traditional logic dictates it. That goes for both Alzolay and Steele, who’ve found success by leaning more heavily on two pitches than just about any starter/closer duo you’re ever going to find. Between the two of them, you’re looking at about 85% four-seamers and sliders. While the southpaw’s cut-ride fastball really plays as two different pitches, the point remains.
It gets even better when you look at Jordan Wicks and other pitchers in the pipeline who should be coming up to help the big club in the next few weeks or years. I’m not going to shoot rainbows up your backside with talk about how it will all have been worth it when these guys are shoving in Chicago because this is all well overdue, but it’s nonetheless very refreshing to see things finally come to fruition.
It’s kinda like getting to your vacation spot a few hours late because of a flat tire and bad traffic, you just focus on the good and let the bad fade into the background as context. Now if the Cubs can just work on getting it right in free agency…