Justin Steele is a perfect example of why it’s not always a good idea to scout pitching prospects’ stat lines. The 24-year-old lefty was 0-6 with a 5.59 ERA for Double-A Tennessee this past season, but those numbers don’t come close to telling his story. Injuries limited him to just 38.2 inconsistent innings and obscured the obvious talent that led the Cubs to keep Steele on the 40-man roster for 2020.
As much as everyone loves to gawk at filthy breaking pitches and big radar readings, none of that matters if a pitcher can’t stay on the mound or repeat his delivery. Those have been issues for Steele, who missed most of 2018 following Tommy John surgery, then had a late start and early finish in 2019 with separate maladies. He had trouble settling into a groove at the start of the season and ended up pressing a little as a result.
“The upside is legitimate as a left-hander that’s really athletic with a great arm,” Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ senior director of player development, said Sunday at Cubs Convention. “He has a chance for two plus pitches, the changeup has a chance to come as well.
“It’s a matter of just keeping healthy and having an extended amount of time to work through some delivery issues. He fights his delivery at times and strikes will come and go.”
When Steele is on, like when he posted a 2.21 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 20.1 innings over his last five starts of the season before an oblique injury shut him down, he is among the top few pitchers in the system. However, throwing only 85.1 innings over the last two seasons led to him falling behind a bit in terms of recognition. But even though he’s been overshadowed by fellow flame-throwing southpaw Brailyn Marquez, the Cubs are still very high on Steele.
“I’m really excited for Justin,” Dorey said. “He’s worked his tail off and he’s such a competitive kid, and he’s a left-hander with that kind of stuff. You talk about Marquez, but Steele’s stuff isn’t that much different if you look at it.
“So we have a chance for two left-handed starters with that kind of arsenal. It’s just a matter of keeping them healthy and just starting and finishing the season.”
Oh man, having a pair of power-pitching lefties in the rotation sure would be fun, huh? In order for that to happen, though, Steele will have to clean up some of the mechanical flaws that have kept him from dominating when he’s on the mound. Some of that is just bad luck in limited action (really good stuff from Bryan Smith of Bleacher Nation there), but not having the changeup dialed in has made him much less effective against right-handed batters to this point in his career.
Knowing that he needed to change things up, literally, Steele turned to a player he grew up idolizing. Though he was raised in Braves territory, he converted to Phillies fandom after meeting Jimmy Rollins, which meant developing an affinity for ace southpaw Cole Hamels. Steele was eventually able to meet Hamels and pick his brain about the offspeed pitch when the two were together last year at spring training.
“He was just playing catch and he threw a bullpen,” Steele said of meeting his hero during spring training. “Obviously he has a really good changeup and my changeup’s kinda shaky at times, so I just asked him, ‘Hey, how do you hold your changeup?’
“I was just kinda asking him as a baseball player. He just sat there, showed me some different things with it, so that’s just kinda how it went.”
So wait, you’re saying you throw the same changeup as one of the game’s master yo-yo practitioners?
“It’s not as good as his, but I use the same grip,” Steele admitted.
Though he’s got a long way to go before he starts making batters look as silly as Hamels does when pulling the string, it helps that Steele’s got an explosive fastball with ride like Harley-Davidson. That monster can get loud, rushing at hitters with mid-90’s velo while appearing to defying gravity as it stays up in the zone.
I made a compilation of Justin Steele fastballs, mostly because my boss @BleacherNation loves few things more than some plus late life. And these, which run up to 95 mph, seriously feature that. pic.twitter.com/blrNHHdI7j
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) December 3, 2019
Then there’s the curveball that he bends with the kind of 11-to-5 break that can have lefty batters bailing out thinking they’re about to get one in the ear. Coming on the heels of that high heat, lefties hardly stand a chance against Steele. If he can just figure out that changeup, even just a little bit, righties are going to have a much tougher time as well.
Steele has a major league arm, there’s never been any question about that. And at only 24 years old, he’s still got plenty of time to sand down some of those rough edges to ensure that his repertoire will play in a starting role at Triple-A and beyond. His stuff will probably play as a reliever even with just the two pitches, but the Cubs surely want to give everything as much time as possible to come together before making that decision.
If all else fails, the Bama fan whose dad wore No. 21 as a wide receiver for the Crimson Tide can fall back on his dead-on Ed Orgeron impression.