How Cubs' Justin Steele is staying ahead of the curve against adjusting league

Steele held the Giants to two runs in 7 1/3 innings in the Cubs’ 5-4 loss Monday.

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Chicago Cubs pitcher Justin Steele throws a baseball

Justin Steele pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning at Oracle Park on Monday in San Francisco.

Brandon Vallance/Getty

SAN FRANCISCO — Cubs left-hander Justin Steele started picking up on a trend against fellow National League Central teams last season.

“I felt like the Reds, the Pirates, different teams in our division, I was starting to see some adjustments being made,” he said. “Whether it was laying off of [pitches], making me have to throw over the zone, or turning the inside part of the plate into the middle and just laying off the outside part of the plate.”

He was mostly throwing two pitches at the time, his four-seam fastball and slider, both of which broke in on right-handed hitters. His initial adjustment was to make sure he was using the outside lane. But even after remaining in the Cy Young conversation for much of the year, Steele had his sights on sustainable success.

In order to keep up the momentum he’d gathered in his breakout 2023 season, Steele knew he’d have to integrate his other secondary pitches into his pitch mix more often. Even as he leaned on his fastball in a 5-4 loss to the Giants on Monday, the evolution of his arsenal was obvious.

“That’s the fun part of baseball, I guess you could say,” he said. “You get to the big leagues, and you try to figure out what’s going to keep you here and what’s going to make you successful at this level. And then once you’re here and established, people start adjusting to you, and then you have to start adjusting back, and that’s the cat-and-mouse game of it.”

For Steele, that meant first narrowing and then slightly widening his pitch mix. He debuted in 2021 with a five-pitch mix. His four-seamer was still his most-used pitch. But then came his sinker, followed closely by his slider and curveball. His changeup brought up the rear.

Over the next two seasons, he homed in on his four-seamer and slider. With the ability to manipulate multiple shapes out of each pitch, which he improved from season to season, it was a more dynamic mix than it seemed on the surface.

His sinker (1.8%), changeup (1.0%) and curveball (0.6%) were barely featured last season, but he didn’t need them. Steele finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting.

“That part of the major-league game, I think, is the best part,” manager Craig Counsell said. “That you always have to continue to stay ahead of the league and recognize it. And the players are really good at that, actually. I don’t think we give them enough credit sometimes for that.”

This year, Steele’s four-seamer and slider, which break away from lefties, have remained the stars of the show. But an uptick in his other three pitches, which move down or the other way, have lent some unpredictability to Steele’s sequencing.

Entering Monday, Steele’s sinker usage was up to 4.8%, curveball to 3.1% and changeup to 2.7%, according to Statcast.

Against the Giants, with new Cubs catcher Tomás Nido behind the plate, the curveball took the stage as Steele’s most-used pitch behind his four-seamer and slider. Of the six curveballs he threw, two were called first-pitch strikes.

“It’s huge,” Steele said. “Puts another pitch in the hitter’s mind. That’s what I’ve been trying to do all season with the changeup and curveball to righties. So deploying those pitches more and more is always good.”

Steele recorded a season-high nine strikeouts and a career-high 17 called strikes on his fastball. Attacking the zone, he also gave up a pair of solo homers, but those were the only runs he allowed.

“It just felt like he was in total command of what he was doing,” said shortstop Dansby Swanson, who made two diving plays and reached base four times. “And other than the two homers, he was pretty unbelievable.”

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