If the 2021 season has been a classroom, left-hander Justin Steele is trying to be the best student he can be. The young Cubs southpaw has been given an opportunity to show what he can do in the team’s rotation in the second half and prove he can be part of the team’s plans going forward.
He felt he belonged on May 4 against the defending World Series champion Dodgers. With runners on first and second and two outs, Steele struck out Austin Barnes on a wipeout breaking ball. As he walked off the mound, he let out a “Let’s go!” as he smacked his glove.
The moment, which also was his first career win, laid the foundation for the rest of his season.
“That was sweet,” Steele told the Sun-Times. “And that was the last game of a sweep. But it was just a really cool moment. Tied ballgame. You just kind of let the emotions take care of everything to get out of that situation. We won it the next inning. Just all learning experiences. I won’t ever forget any of them.”
Since that game, the Cubs have given Steele several learning experiences. He thrived as the “bridge guy” in the team’s lockdown bullpen earlier this season and posted a 2.03 ERA as a reliever.
After Steele suffered a hamstring injury in June, the team sent him down to return to his more natural role and stretch him out to pitch in the big leagues.
Steele’s performances as a starter resemble a young pitcher with upside. There have been positive moments thanks to a combination of pitches that can consistently get major-league hitters out.
Steele said he’s most proud of the focus he has had in each of his roles in his first season in Chicago.
“It would be attention to detail on every single throw,” Steele said. “Working on all my pitches. Even when I’m playing catch or in my bullpen work. It’s just attention to detail. Just working on the two-seam, on the four-seam, slider and curveball. Just fine-tuning every pitch every day with every throw that I have. I would say that’s been the biggest difference this year.”
But mixed with the good have been moments to grow from. Steele has a 5.12 ERA in seven starts this season. Like Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson, growing from the bad moments while holding on to the good is the balance the Cubs are hoping to achieve for with their young arms.
“Everybody’s not your first-round Walker Buehler-type that comes in and dominates, right?” manager David Ross said. “The ups and downs of a major-league player, especially a young player, there’s going to be some success, there’s going to be bumps in the road. Just the fact of having that back and forth and hoping to continue to see the progression forward is what we’re looking for.
“The nice thing about the group you mentioned is there’s some success in a lot of different areas. So we realize there’s a lot of flexibility there. From a total staff standpoint, going into next year, there’s a lot of positives, and we can pull from different areas to see how it fits into what the roster looks like.”
Some of the areas Steele has shown he still needs to improve are his efficiency, his pitches and commanding the strike zone. While getting through five innings is a good starting point, if he can command his fastball better, making it not only to the sixth inning but through it is the next step.
“Definitely fastball command,” he said. “Commanding all my pitches is what I wanna come into spring training with. You know when Jon Lester is pitching, he’s gonna fill up the strike zone. I want to be one of those type of guys. Give our team a chance to win ballgames.”