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A Cubsmas Advent Calendar: Justin Steele was an ace in 2023

Was it a career year or a new level for the Cubs lefty?

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Justin Steele throws against the Diamondbacks in September
John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

This is Day Nine of a Cubsmas Advent Calendar. You can read the explanation for the project and Day One here.

The Cubs’ best pitcher in 2023 was Justin Steele. The 28-year old lefty put together a season worthy of Cy Young consideration, and while he ultimately faded down the stretch, he finished fifth in National League Cy Young voting on the back of a 16-5 record over 173⅓ innings with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.02 FIP. It was an impressive performance, and Steele’s ability to repeat it next season is a key to the 2024 Cubs’ success, so today I wanted to take a look at what worked for Steele in 2023 and if it’s more fact or fluke.

There were hints in 2022 that Justin Steele was emerging as a legitimate MLB starter. The Cubs lefty got off to a rocky start with a 1-5 record and a 5.40 ERA two seasons ago, but his 3.20 FIP indicated that he was a bit unlucky in those first 35 innings. After Memorial Day Steele threw an impressive 84 innings to the tune of a 2.25 ERA with a 3.21 FIP and while that team didn’t really give him the run support he needed to rack up wins, it was pretty clear he’d figured something out.

The thing about Justin Steele though, is that while we all can look at his results, his consistent low threes FIP, and especially the weak contact (more on that in a second), at the end of the day it’s a two-pitch mix that really seems to confound some of the smartest evaluators of pitching talent around baseball. There is a really good example of this in this game breakdown from Nick Pollack at Pitcher List:

For those of you who are familiar with stuff models, Eno Sarris’ Pitching+ model isn’t all that keen on Steele either. Pitching+ has a stuff number (how nasty are the pitches), a location number (command) and a combo of the two. Let’s take a look at Steele’s preseason projections & actuals from Pitching+:

Justin Steele Pitching+ Projection & Actual

Proj/Season IP ERA K% Stuff+ Location+ Pitching+
Proj/Season IP ERA K% Stuff+ Location+ Pitching+
2023 Projection 155.0 3.82 23.50% 97 98 98
2023 Actual 173.1 3.02 24.60% 99 102 102
Pitching+ Stats Eno Sarris gathered from FanGraphs & The Athletic

To be clear, Nick and Eno are two of the smartest pitching analysts I know. I trust both of them more than just about anyone else in the industry to evaluate pitching. Both of their methods and models just don’t get what Steele is doing at all — stipulated. And, also, I now have 257⅓ innings of work where Steele did this: 2.80 ERA, a 3.08 FIP with a 24.50 percent strikeout rate, a 6.3 percent walk rate and a 19-7 record dating back to Memorial Day 2022.

What gives?

Justin Steele throws two pitches, but they really play like more than that because of the way he locates the pitches. The four-seam fastball has a bit of cutting action (Nick describes this in the above video) that generates consistently weak contact. The slider plays off of that beautifully and keeps batters guessing and more mystified than it seems like they should be watching the pitches and the at bats. The results are effective, even if the pitches don’t wow you the way Corbin Burnes does when you’re sitting right behind home plate.

Enter, stage left, Jon Lester. If you’ve watched the Cubs on Marquee Sports Network over the last couple of seasons you know that Lester was one of the key contributors to Steele’s more effective sequencing. The Athletic had a great writeup on this last September, you should read the whole thing, but this jumps out:

By the time Cubs manager David Ross checked his phone after the game, he had already received multiple text messages from Lester, his close friend, former teammate and one of the best pitchers in franchise history. Lester noticed how the Milwaukee Brewers reacted to Justin Steele’s pitches, considered the sequencing and passed along a few suggestions.

It’s not fair to compare one spectacular Cy Young Award-caliber season to a possible Hall of Fame career built over 16 years. It’s not accurate to assign all the credit to a retired dude on the couch and diminish all the hard work it took to get to this point. But this thread helps explain how the Cubs arrived as a bona fide playoff contender. Even though they’ve rarely interacted over the years, the Lester-Steele connection is real.

Lester’s main point to Ross — his personal catcher on two World Series-winning teams — centered around the idea of Steele establishing the four-seam fastball down and in against right-handed hitters on the inner third of home plate. Commanding that quadrant could help open up everything else for Steele, who had repeatedly shown flashes of potential but still needed to make that jump to become a viable major-league starter.

It is worth noting that that piece goes on to explain in detail why Lester felt comfortable sharing his insights with Ross in a way he may not have felt comfortable sharing them with any other manager, or Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy. If there are other ways Lester has guided Steele since that conversation, I hope that relationship is maintained with a new manager at the helm.

In a weird way Steele’s ability to outperform his projections reminds me a bit of Kyle Hendricks earlier in his career. While the two have very different arsenals, at it’s core they both present this pitching conundrum where everything we know about pitching from the smartest people around baseball says this shouldn’t work, but the results across a substantial number of innings tell us definitively that it does, in fact, work. I reached out to Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs to get previous year’s Steamer projections to take a closer look at this. You can see Steele’s consistent overperformance in the last two seasons in the table below:

Justin Steele Steamer Projections & Actual 2022-2024

Proj/Actual IP ERA WHIP
Proj/Actual IP ERA WHIP
2022 Steamer 60 4.52 1.43
2022 Actual 119 3.18 1.35
2023 Steamer 143 3.85 1.33
2023 Actual 173.1 3.06 1.17
2024 Steamer 181 3.69 1.25
Projected and Actual Stats Steamer & FanGraphs

My stance on Hendricks in his heyday was always to bet on Kyle rather than projections. Yes, I knew it would likely come apart at the seams someday, but that is more because Father Time is undefeated. Injuries happen, the game changes around players, hitters adapt and pitchers have to adapt back, some of those adaptations are more successful than others.

In case anyone is wondering where I stand on Justin Steele, I just bumped him up a couple of rounds in a 12-Team Mixed League Standard Roto draft I’m currently participating in online (yes, I’m drafting fantasy baseball teams in December. Don’t judge.). I understand the risks inherent in the profile, and my money is on the 257⅓ innings of work I’ve seen from Steele over the last season and a half.

The Cubs will need at least one more starter in order to compete in the division in 2024, but this year even the projections are coming around with Steamer projecting a slight regression for Steele of 181 innings pitched with a 3.68 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 23.1 percent strikeout rate and a 7.3 percent walk rate. That would be pretty solid number three territory, but assuming he stays healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Steele overperform his projections once again. Another year like 2023 could put him right back into Cy Young consideration in 2024.