There are a lot of heroes in this Cubs season so far. Cody Bellinger is doing an excellent impersonation of his MVP season and will almost certainly be the NL Comeback Player of the Year after putting up a .320/.363/.549 slash line with a 142 wRC+ and 4.1 fWAR over 454 plate appearances this season. I might be inclined to put a role player like Mike Tauchman on this list, he’s given the Cubs plus defensive options in the outfield, but particularly in center field, while getting on-base at a .360 clip leading off against righties this season. However, today I’m going to look at a home-grown Cub who has absolutely blown away my very high expectations for him this season: Justin Steele.
Justin Steele put on a show against the San Francisco Giants on Labor Day afternoon at Wrigley Field. It was a playoff environment with the Giants entering the day in a three-way tie for the final Wild Card spot with the Cubs 2½ games ahead of them in sole possession of the second Wild Card. Steele took the mound and did what he’s done all season: he dealt. The gritty southpaw who mystifies pitching analysts by getting it done with two pitches and exceptional sequencing rather than plus stuff turned in an eight-inning, two-hit masterpiece, striking out a career high 12 batters. He was fired up as he walked off the mound in the seventh after his (to that point) career-high 11th strikeout. We all want to look at it again [VIDEO].
But it isn’t just one exceptional game, or the career high in strikeouts. What Steele has done this year is at the top of the National League for pitchers. Today I’ll make the case that he deserves consideration for the Cy Young Award, which is awarded to the best pitcher in each league. Voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America rank their top five pitchers in each league and a weighted formula determines the winner. If I had a vote (I do not) Justin Steele is absolutely near the top of my ballot, it’s merely a question of whether he’s first, second or third. Let’s look at the numbers:
National League Starting Pitches by fWAR 9.5
A few things jump out at me in that chart right away, and let’s start with the case against Steele’s candidacy. There are basically two: first, the biggest knock against Steele is his innings total relative to the other pitchers on this list. He has (another career high) 152 innings this season which is the lowest tally of any pitcher in the top 10. Now, that makes the fact that he’s third in fWAR even more impressive, but I digress. The second case against Steele is that he doesn’t strike out as many guys as the other pitchers on this list, and the people who evaluate pitching tend to look at it as a strikeout game these days. Only Logan Webb (the excellent Giants pitcher Steele bested yesterday in a pitching duel for the ages) strikes out a lower number of guys per nine innings.
That said, there is nothing in the Cy Young voting instructions that mandates voters take into account innings, WAR or strikeouts. Those are just elements of a ballot that asks them to determine the best pitcher in each league. Steele is tied for the highest number of wins, 16, with Atlanta’s Spencer Strider. His 2.55 ERA is second among qualified starters, behind only Blake Snell, who has a 2.50 ERA. He has the lowest HR/FB rate among qualified pitchers in the National League with a 0.65 (only Sonny Gray with an absurd 0.34 mark in the AL is lower in MLB). Steele also sports exceptional command with the sixth lowest walk rate per nine innings.
If quality starts are your thing, Justin Steele has 19 of them — good for second in MLB behind only Webb, who has 20. Zack Wheeler and Corbin Burnes are tied for third with 18. Presumptive Cy Young favorite, Spencer Strider and ERA leader Blake Snell are tied for fifth with 16 (Merrill Kelly and Mitch Keller also have 16 quality starts in 2023). As a reminder, a quality start is an outing where a starter goes 6+ innings with three earned runs or fewer. They are generally considered a better metric of pitcher quality than wins, since a pitcher cannot control how many runs their offense puts on the board in a given start.
Speaking of innings per start, maybe the best case I can make for Justin Steele is that he has gone at least five innings in every start he’s made since June 17. He’s made 14 starts in that time — he’s gone at least six innings in 11 of them. He hasn’t had more than three earned runs in any of those starts. Let me say that again: Justin Steele hasn’t given up more than three earned runs in any start since June 17.
So it will come down to an age-old question for voters: how do they determine the best pitcher in baseball? And it’s truly a fascinating question this season. If the best pitcher needs to have a strikeout arsenal and a gaudy K/9, Steele will fall short in the balloting (although he should still be top five for most voters). However, for voters who still care about wins and ERA, Steele has as strong of a case as anyone to be the National League Cy Young winner. FanGraphs predicts he’ll start five more games this season and throw 26 more innings during those starts to the tune of a 3.61 ERA. I’d take the over on the innings and the under on the ERA right now based on everything Steele has done so far in 2023. In fact, his FIP (fielding independent pitching, so, basically ERA with the Cubs plus defense ignored) is 2.98 this season. If I were being pessimistic, I’d probably predict an ERA over the last month closer to that FIP than the FanGraphs projection.
But honestly, I don’t feel pessimistic where Justin Steele is concerned. Why? Because if you go back to July 1, 2022 this is what Justin Steele has done for the Chicago Cubs: 200⅓ innings pitched with a 2.28 ERA, 212 strikeouts to just 51 walks. An even lower 0.63 HR/FB ratio and an even lower 2.93 FIP. Adding in the second half of last year’s numbers you get 10 more quality starts, only one more outing where he didn’t go at least five innings and zero, yes, zero, additional games where Steele has given up more than three earned runs in an outing.
I understand that the Cy Young voters won’t take last year into consideration — but the above cuts against the idea that somehow Steele doesn’t have the longevity or durability that other pitchers on the leaderboard do. This is not some fluke, Steele has figured out his pitch mix and location and belongs in the conversation with the most elite arms in the National League. As of this writing he’s only thrown seven fewer innings than the odds on favorite, Strider. Yes, Strider strikes out a lot more batters, but is it worth that for a full additional run per inning and a substantially less consistent body of work as measured by quality starts and/or ERA? A voter who wants to defend voting for the lowest ERA has to make the case that the additional 0.05 earned runs prevented by Blake Snell over three additional innings are more meaningful than the extra three quality starts Steele has provided this year.
The bottom line is that there are compelling arguments Strider and Snell, but Steele’s argument is just as strong. If a voter wanted to reward innings they’d need to throw ERA to the side entirely and look to reward Webb’s league leading (and impressive) 187 innings or Zack Wheeler’s additional WAR. Those are both coherent cases to make, but, again, so is Steele’s. After yesterday’s performance in a playoff race I’d be hard pressed to put Steele any lower than third on a hypothetical Cy Young ballot — and he’s got one more month to make his case even stronger.