Clink. Clink. Clink. The sound was mesmerizing as the blacksmith expertly smushed his hammer down onto the glowing piece layed before him. Clink. Clink. Clink. It’s an arduous process to turn a raw piece of steel into a weapon of extraordinary magnitude. Heat it up so that it becomes malleable, dump it in water to strengthen it, then repeat the process until a sword emerges, blings, mesmerizes, then slices and dices as it’s intended to do. Unfortunately, the proliferation of weapons powered by gunpowder made swords obsolete, but swords could still have utility in the right situation. At the end of the day, in close quarters, they can still slice and dice. Justin Steele of the Chicago Cubs has taken time to be forged, and doesn’t have the explosive nature of some of his contemporaries. That said, he has been useful and could be employed in the right situation. Let’s dig in to see how potent this Steele truly is.
Steele is 27 years old, 6’2″, 205 pounds, and throws from the left side. He was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB draft.
Throughout his minor league career, he did an excellent job of keeping the ball in the yard, as the HR/9 never exceeded .9. He did have some control issues, though, as the BB/9 was over 4 multiple times. As for the strikeout rate, it fluctuated early on but settled in the mid-9 range.
He made it to the majors last season and pitched 57 innings, posting a 9.32 K/9, 4.26 BB/9, and 5.52 FIP. Uncharacteristically, he allowed 1.89 HR/9. So far in 107.2 innings, the K/9 has remained the same at 9.28 while the walk rate has ticked down to 3.76. The HR/9 has plummeted to 0.59, though, and the FIP is at 3.23.
Steele has a fastball that averages in the 92 to 93 mph range. He threw the sinker 20.1% of the time and the curveball 15.5% of the time last season. The groundball rate was 50.3%.
This season, he’s increased the fastball usage from 45.7% up to 57% while decreasing the sinker and curveball usage down to 7.3% and 3.2% respectively. His secondary pitch has been the slider, which he’s throwing 30.6% of the time.
Utilizing the fastball makes sense for Steele despite the low velocity because the spin rate is in the 94th percentile. The slider has a 32.3% whiff rate and .170 wOBA. Batters have a .135 batting average and .196 slugging percentage against the pitch. He’s thrown the slider 570 times compared to the 1,051 fastballs thrown. Last season, the breakdown was 438 fastballs, 197 sinkers, 159 sliders, and 150 curveballs.
No wonder he’s in the 96th percentile for barrel rate and above the 80th percentile for both average exit velocity and hard hit rate.
As for splits, 6 of the 7 home runs allowed have been to righties but the HR/9 is still only 0.65 to righties and 0.36 to lefties. He’s striking out 30.6% of lefties and 21.5% of righties. The FIP is 2.54 to lefties and 3.44 to righties.
At Wrigley, the HR/9 is only 0.41. The K/9 is 8.4 but the FIP is 3.13. He’s striking out more batters on the road (10.63 K/9) and the FIP is 3.4. The sample sizes are small, though, at 65.1 innings at home and 42.1 innings on the road.
I usually eschew soft-tossing pitchers who have a paltry swinging strike rate but I always have room in my heart for pitchers like Steele. He reminds me a lot of Framber Valdez, although Framber throws a little harder and relies more on the sinker. That said, the results have been similar. Both keep the ball in the yard, have high ground ball rates, aren’t completely devoid of strikeouts, and have FIPs in the low-3s. Framber is the 22nd-best pitcher on the Razzball Player Rater.
Steele is down at 162 on the Player Rater, but that’s due to some ugly outings to start the season. From the start of the season to 6/28, Steele had a 8.49 K/9, 4.04 BB/9, and 4.59 ERA in 64.2 innings. Since then, he’s pitched 43 innings and posted a 10.47 K/9, 3.35 BB/9, and 1.67 ERA.
Are we going to bring this Steele into a gunfight? That probably wouldn’t be prudent, but in the right matchups, he could slice and dice with the best of them. The change in pitch mix gives me optimism that the change in numbers are real.