Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks: Justin Steele’s new changeup will be a ‘game changer’

Lefty Justin Steele is expected to break camp in the Cubs’ rotation.

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Cubs lefty Justin made his third start of spring training against the Diamondbacks on Tuesday.

Cubs lefty Justin made his third start of spring training against the Diamondbacks on Tuesday.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs lefty Justin Steele came into camp 20 pounds heavier and with a new changeup in his arsenal. Not to mention he has a baby on the way. Steele and his girlfriend, Libby Murphy, are expecting their first child, a boy, in July.

“That’s a big step,” veteran right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “I told him, ‘Dad strength — it happens immediately, right?’ ”

To add to the positive changes in his life, Steele is expected to break camp in the Cubs’ rotation — or, as manager David Ross put it Tuesday morning, Steele has a “strong chance” of doing so. Entering his second season, Steele is lined up to pitch third in the order to start the year while veteran Wade Miley continues to ramp up. Ross has not yet announced the order.

“He’s looked really good,” Ross said of Steele. “Building off of last year, ball’s coming out nicely [and he] looks like he’s healthy and going to give us some really good starts.”

Steele went into the offseason knowing he wanted to put on at least a little weight. He had been between about 195 and 205 pounds, generally, and feeling good.

“But over the course of 162 games, you lose weight,” he said. “So I wanted to come into this season with a little extra weight on me, so that when I start losing weight throughout the season, I’ll be ready for that.”

In the first week of camp, he weighed in at 222. He thanks Murphy — apparently quite the chef — for that gain.

As for the changeup, Steele wanted a bigger drop in velocity from his fastball. Last season, his changeup was 88 mph on average, about 5 mph slower than his fastball. He’s looking for closer to a 10 mph difference.

He started playing with changeup grips, burying the ball deeper into his hand. The result has caught the attention of Hendricks, who relies heavily on his own changeup.

“It’s just gonna be a game-changer for him,” Hendricks said. “His other stuff is elite. If you can just mix that in there, it’s gonna make his stuff even better.”

Steele’s slider and curveball are his go-to secondary pitches, resulting in whiffs 29.3% and 34.6% of the time last season, respectively, according to Baseball Savant. Hendricks predicts the slower changeup will throw off hitters’ timing even more.

Steele has yet to fully highlight the changeup in three spring starts. In this development stage, he wants to get ahead of hitters before mixing it in. Tuesday wasn’t the day.

“I was too busy trying to find the fastball,” he said with a smile.

His fastball command issues led to four walks in less than three innings. With his pitch count climbing in the second inning, the Cubs took advantage of spring-training rules, pulling him with two outs and then putting him back in for the third inning.

“[In the regular season], I would have started flipping a lot more breaking balls or tried something a lot different,” Steele said. “But I really wanted to find that fastball command and hone it in.”

Spring training is, after all, a time to work through timing issues. Steele found himself forcing the fastball, his upper body getting ahead of his lower body.

Reset ahead of the third, he retired the side in order.

“I wanted to go back out there and fix what I was doing wrong,” he said. “And I was able to, so it was good to end on that note.”

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