WASHINGTON – With a runner on first and a 1-1 count, Cubs lefty Justin Steele called on a pitch he hadn’t featured much yet this season: his changeup. Nationals hitter Lane Thomas got out in front of the ball and rolled over it into a double play.
“That’s huge as far as building confidence with the pitch,” Steele said after the Cubs’ 7-5 extra-innings win against the Nationals on Tuesday. That’s exactly what I was trying to do in that situation.”
Steele, who held the Nationals to one unearned run through six innings, hadn’t thrown a changeup in a game in over three weeks. But he threw seven on Tuesday, according to Statcast. The changeup is the linchpin in what Steele sees as the next step in his development.
“I really want to come into next year with a bona fide third, fourth pitch,” Steele said after his previous start, “where I feel just as confident in them pitches as I do with my four-seamer and my slider.”
Entering Tuesday, Steele had thrown his four-seamer and slider 57.2 % and 30.2 % of the time, respectively, according to Statcast.
He had a few candidates for that third go-to pitch. His sinker has different action on it than his four-seamer. He’s used to mixing in his curveball, which he threw more than his slider in the final month of the 2021 season.
“The curveball has taken kind of a backseat because he’s got such a good feel for the slider, being able to manipulate that,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Sun-Times. “So, the changeup kind of feels like the pitch that is enough of a separation between the other two that we can work on it, hone that in, and start using that in spots.”
Steele has been tinkering with the pitch since before spring training, playing with different grips – “I’ve tried every single one of them” – and eventually finding the drop in velocity he was looking for by burying the ball deeper into his palm.
“We threw a couple changeups and two-seamers, and they looked really good,” catcher Yan Gomes said of spring training. “But then when the season starts, you start seeing how well just his four-seamer and slider mix play. So, you don’t really want to, ‘Oh, let’s try this pitch out,’ and then you cost him a run or something like that.”
Entering Tuesday, Steele had thrown 29 changeups this season, including a non-competitive pitch that prompted Gomes to repeatedly mash the “cancel” button on his PitchCom controls in a moment of levity. Steele first told the story on the Marquee broadcast when he was mic’d up last week.
“It was like, ‘Alright, we’ll just stick to the other pitches for now,’” Steele recounted to the Sun-Times. “That’s just how it goes.”
While being cognizant of controlling their young pitchers’ reps – Steele surpassed his innings total from last year, in the majors and minors, weeks ago – the Cubs are having Steele feature his changeup in catch play. Then, in his bullpens he establishes his four-seamer and slider first to “lock in” his mechanics, as Hottovy puts it, before working on the changeup, curveball or sinker.
Hottovy and his team of coaches have already successfully helped Keegan Thompson add a slider to his repertoire this year. Now, Hottovy’s seeing growth in the way Steele is approaching throwing his changeup, replicating his fastball mechanics and trusting his grip to mostly take care of the rest.
The next step for Steele is to integrate it into games more often, which he started Tuesday.
“He’s been on such a good run, it’s like, when is that right time to break it out?” Hottovy said. “... But you’re not going to go out there in the game and say, ‘OK, we’re going to throw 20 changeups today.’”
Hottovy would rather his pitchers learn the most effective situations for the arsenal addition – when a batter is fouling off a lot of pitches, for example – and let the game dictate how often they deploy it.
“As soon as they foul one off, just drop a changeup in there, give them a different look,” Steele said. “And then that can shorten a lot of at-bats, allow me to go deeper into games.”
Steele cracked a smile when asked about the pitch after Tuesday’s game. He’d generated a whiff and a ground-ball double play with it.
“I was really happy with the way they looked,” he said. “I felt like the movement on them was consistent. I was getting the movement that I wanted out of them. ... I think moving forward it will be a big pitch.”