Following a sporadic minor league tenure plagued by injuries, Justin Steele set professional career highs for starts (24) and innings (119) last season. He’d never thrown more than 98.2 innings or made more than 20 starts (both in 2017), so the Cubs were being cautious with him even before a low back issue shut him down last September. Given his health history and an increased reliance on his performance due to inconsistencies elsewhere in the rotation, there was concern in some corners about how the lefty would handle a big jump in usage.
That wasn’t just unfounded fear, either. Steele went to the IL at the end of May with a forearm strain and then bounced back well over his next three starts, but things started to look slightly tenuous in early August. During his 21st start of the season on August 6 against the Braves, Steele set a new mark for innings pitched at 121 and pitches in a game with 110. Even though he got the win, he walked four batters for the first time since April 8 and looked badly gassed by the end.
In his next start against Toronto, he lasted only five innings for the first time in nearly two months and got a no-decision while allowing three earned runs for the third game in a row. It was also his fourth straight game allowing a homer, bringing him to seven dingers surrendered in seven games after having given up just three in his first 15 starts. Was it just a statistical correction or a sign that he was flagging?
Based on his last four games, I think we can rule out the latter.
Since that start north of the border, Steele is 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA and 33 strikeouts to five walks over 26 innings. He threw at least 99 pitches in each game and even set a new high-water mark with 111 against the Brewers, and he did it all while pushing further into uncharted territory with each pitch. That’s a testament to the work he put in this offseason, but it’s also a matter of pitching in front of a home crowd in the heat of a playoff race.
“It’s just Wrigley,” Steele said after the game. “It’s just the fans realizing the moment. They brought the energy and I kind of like to feed off it. It was awesome to pitch in that environment.”
Steele now leads the majors with 16 wins and his 2.55 ERA ranks second. While I’m typically among those who are dismissive of wins as carrying much weight, it’s pretty impressive that Steele is 7-0 over his last nine starts. It’s more impressive that the Cubs have won all nine of those games, which is far more important than the starter’s record.
Ah, but those wins are what will elevate Steele in the minds of awards voters at the end of the season. Heading into yesterday’s game, Tom Tango’s Cy Young predictor model had Steele trailing Blake Snell and Spencer Strider. Striking out 12 with two walks and two hits over eight innings was a pretty good way to tighten that race further, so now it could come down to who looks best over the next four weeks.
Discerning voters should probably have it down to Strider and Steele, as Snell’s peripherals leave a bit to be desired. Not only does the Padres pitcher have the highest walk rate among qualified pitchers, but his 3.96 xERA ranks 17th, and both his 3.69 FIP and 3.65 xFIP rank ninth. While Strider’s 3.56 ERA isn’t sterling, he leads the majors in those other three categories and the only pitchers with better strikeout rates are relievers.
Steele’s 3.51 xERA is fifth, his 2.98 FIP is third, and his 3.43 xFIP is fifth, but his 0.65 HR/9 mark is the lowest among his peers and he may be authoring the best story. This kind of feels like a Heisman race in which different regions might split the votes and allow Steele to walk through the path that’s cleared as a result. Not that he isn’t wholly deserving in his own right, of course.
Mississippi Fastball would be my choice because he really doesn’t have any wild swings in his numbers and he doing this while carrying his team on his back at times. If he can keep doing that over what could be five more starts, one of which should come against Strider’s Braves, voters could well be swayed to list him atop their ballots.
“It’s really cool, it’s quite the honor,” Steele responded when asked about being mentioned in the Cy Young conversation. “For me, I just wanna keep showing up every day and winning ballgames. I really like where the team’s at. I feel like we’re starting to click on all cylinders. Everybody’s picking each other up when it’s needed.”
However the individual accolades end up shaking out, it’s been really cool to see a homegrown pitcher step up and assume the mantle of ace for the Cubs this season.