It’s a gift and a curse, for Chicago Cubs starter Justin Steele, that people’s eyes can’t seem to adjust to what he’s doing. He ranks second in MLB in ERA, first in park-adjusted ERA+ and is tied for first in wins, yet NL Cy Young polls often leave him out of the top five candidates. BetMGM oddsmakers currently give him the third-best odds, at +500, behind only Zac Gallen and Blake Snell.
It’s understandable, on pure name recognition, that the 28-year-old left-hander doesn’t yet live on the tip of the tongue. Drafted out of high school in 2014, he made his major-league debut only in 2021, and joined the starting rotation full-time only during Chicago’s middling 2022 campaign.
As the Cubs have surged into the National League playoff picture over the past month, however, there have been more opportunities to notice just how good Steele has been. Since the start of 2022, only six starters (min. 200 innings) have a better ERA. In 2023, he has provided the Cubs 15 quality starts — tied for sixth-most in the majors.
So recently, there have been more folks watching the man and the pitches that exuberant Cubs reliever Adbert Alzolay interchangeably hypes as “Mississippi fastballs.” More will undoubtedly see him, with the Cubs a half game out of the NL wild card, as he takes the mound Saturday in a key series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
What they have seen bucks the convention of a starter’s arsenal, and the contemporary idea of what makes for a good fastball — flummoxing a parade of major-league hitters along the way.
How do you describe Justin Steele’s fastball?
Throughout his long journey to the majors, and even before the Cubs drafted him out of Lucedale, Mississippi, Steele knew his fastball had natural cut. Before ball-tracking data quantified it in the pros, before scouts and coaches started telling him about his unique movement profile, he could see it in the swings. He could understand, as a high school player who also did plenty of hitting, why it worked.
Fastballs, broadly, tend to move toward the pitcher’s arm side as they approach the plate, which is called run. A major-league four-seamer usually goes only a little to that side, giving it the appearance of being straight. A sinker might move quite a bit to that side, giving it the appearance of being possessed.
Steele’s doesn’t go that way to any degree. It has “cut,” or movement to the glove side typically associated with sliders. As a left-hander in a predominantly right-handed world, he realized that the cut could work to his advantage.
“It’s really important when I’m going in to the righties, I want it to continue to go in the entire time,” Steele said of the buzz-saw action he creates against righties. “I don’t want it to leak back over the plate, go towards the barrel. So that’s kind of how I use it.”
Watch how his fastball bends as it approaches the plate:
Then compare that to another lefty — Cincinnati Reds rookie Andrew Abbott — whose movement profile tracks closely to the MLB norm for four-seams:
If you’re thinking, Wait a minute, that’s just a cutter, plenty of algorithms and at least one industry data provider — Pitch Info at Baseball Prospectus — agree with you, but Steele insists it’s a four-seam. And the intent matters more than you might think.
“When my hand comes through, I’m kinda on the side of the ball,” he said this week, demonstrating how his southpaw release — which involves starting on the third-base side of the rubber, stepping toward the first-base line and firing back across his body — lends the pitch its defining characteristics. “So it’s spinning like a four-seam fastball. It’s just kind of sideways, almost.”
As soon as Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy got a glimpse of Steele, he realized the fastball had a unique profile. Taking advantage of it required understanding why his ball moved the way it did. The Cubs found the answer in Steele’s throwing motion, the way his wrist prefers to supinate when he throws, an inclination that usually puts pitchers on a path to throwing good breaking balls.
“He’s just a natural supinator,” Hottovy told Yahoo Sports. “Like, he can throw a football really well. Everything he does is kind of from that supinated position. So the cut was always going to be easy for him.”
Averaging 91.7 mph, Steele’s heater looks relatively slow for a primary fastball. But if it were dubbed a cutter, it would rank as the third-hardest thrown by any starter in 2023, and the hardest thrown by a lefty, which nods at the deception behind its success.
In the language of pitch design spoken throughout professional clubhouses and player development teams, Steele’s fastball has “cut ride.” It veers to the glove side, horizontally, without taking the same sort of vertical dive you associate with a slider or sinker.
“A lot of organizations, a lot of teams, obviously want guys to have this kind of cut ride four-seam but they want to err on the side of more ride than cut, because they want to be able to get above the barrel,” Hottovy said. “You want to be able to get swing and miss in big moments.”
But Steele’s fastball, Hottovy said, generally swings far more in the “cut” direction of the equation, even though it’s less en vogue around the league as teams pursue strikeouts more than weak contact.
“I can’t speak for everybody in baseball, but one thing I really like to do is like when you have guys that have unique profiles or a unique pitch, pitch shapes, find ways to highlight that,” he said. “Don’t find ways to try to change it.”
The zig is apparent in what numbers can capture about the pitch. Steele’s fastball has the single most extreme Horizontal Approach Angle — a metric that gauges the angle a pitch is moving when it reaches a hitter — among 89 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 four-seam fastballs this season, per Alex Chamberlain’s excellent pitch leaderboard. On Statcast’s movement charts, his four-seam stands alone in such a dramatic way that it sets two different boundaries of the chart when you plot left-handed pitchers’ fastballs.
All of which is to say: the pitch is extremely weird. And when your results spring from hitters making snap judgments and highly trained fine motor movements in fractions of a second, weird is usually good.
Steele’s arsenal has famous cousins
The semantics of pitch classification are generally more important to observers trying to understand the game than to the players on the field, but Steele’s fastball is an interesting case of multi-level misdirection.
“As you start diving into the numbers, the charts and stuff, you can actually see why it’s so hard,” Steele said.
Calling an obvious curveball a fastball wouldn’t fool anyone, but Steele is throwing it like a four-seam, calling it a four-seam and, apparently, hitters are seeing it as either a four-seam that evades their expectations or as something entirely unrecognizable.
“When you see that the spin, the way he throws it, at times it can almost look slider-ish to a hitter,” Hottovy said, “but it’s still 92 and still has enough lift that it’ll get about the barrel or get on them for weak contact.”
“Because lefties that throw fastballs around that range, the ball is typically going to do this,” Steele said, referring to the typical arm-side run, “and hitters get used to doing it a certain way. And then when it just doesn’t do that, it goes the other direction, it just messes with your head.”
Over the past few years, Steele said, he has figured out how to harness and manipulate its natural qualities. That can mean throwing it as a back-door offering to righties, or getting behind the ball more to impart more traditional ride against lefties. Hottovy said the fastball can sometimes function as two different pitches, one that gets more ride to throw against lefties, and the more extreme cutter-like version he flings at righties. The fact that his fastball could shape-shift without changing the grip adds to the mystery.
“It’s what makes hitters uncomfortable in the box,” Hottovy said, “when you see a pitch that you think is supposed to move one way and it goes another way.”
Following the lead of a small cadre of starters who rely almost entirely on just two pitches, Steele has leaned into the fingerprint of his fastball, paring down his arsenal to the fastball and a diabolical slider that imitate each other in early flight. It’s not for lack of options, Hottovy said, noting that Steele has consistently and effectively experimented with several other pitches in bullpen sessions.
“He’s got a five-pitch mix, but again, at what point you feel like you need to start breaking that out?” Hottovy said. “That’s the hard part, right? You’re beating guys with with fastballs in — they may get a hit or two — but you don’t want to shy away from your strengths and what makes you successful.”
This season, there hasn’t been much reason to stray from the fastball and slider. Steele has thrown one of them on 96.4% of his pitches.
That makes his arsenal eye-popping for both the unconventional fastball and the unconventional plan of attack. As FanGraphs’ Jake Mailhot and other analysts have noted, though, Steele’s arsenal does have some cousins in some of the league’s most successful southpaw starters — Clayton Kershaw and Max Fried.
Kershaw is a generational titan whose career is tough to use as a comparison — as is his fastball, which cuts like Steele’s but achieves a different level of ride to miss bats. Still, his recent progression offers a hint at how Steele might continue evolving.
The Los Angeles Dodgers legend has been on the leading edge of a leaguewide trend toward using sliders more, with his excellent offering now his primary pitch. Steele has moved closer to that point this season against lefties, who aren’t as befuddled by the fastball. Same-sided hitters are batting .323 against his heater, but only .163 against the slider that tunnels off it. Steele has, accordingly, bumped up its usage from 35.4% last season to 46% this year.
Fried, the recently returned Atlanta Braves star whom Steele cited as one of his favorite pitchers to watch, wields the closest fastball to Steele’s on the movement front, while Hottovy said he and manager David Ross, a former Boston Red Sox catcher, often refer to Jon Lester’s early fastball-cutter repertoire as a touchpoint. Those longer track records of results lend some credibility to Steele’s performance.
It is historically an advantage to bat against an opposite-handed pitcher, which means lefties theoretically face far more hitters who have an edge. Yet Fried and Steele exhibit minimal platoon splits — meaning they are roughly as effective against righties as against lefties — largely because of those fastballs.
Specifically, they use the cutting action of their fastballs to induce weak contact and avoid home runs. Since the start of 2022, only four pitchers with at least 200 innings on their records have given up fewer homers per nine innings than Steele (0.64 HR/9), and no one has suppressed homers better than Fried (0.57 HR/9). Last season, Steele held hitters to the second-lowest average exit velocity, 89.4 mph, on the crucial fly balls and line drives that could turn into extra-base hits. This season, he’s fifth. Fried and right-handed cutter master Corbin Burnes routinely rank among the league leaders in that metric.
This is the sort of skill that often gets misunderstood. Racking up strikeouts is certainly a more surefire route to ace status — Steele’s 23.6 K% since the start of 2022 is a shade over the MLB average, and an exact match for Fried’s — but that can’t be everyone’s best approach.
So what Steele has demonstrated in his burgeoning MLB career might take longer to understand, might take longer to trust if you haven’t been watching hitters shake their heads your whole life. The precedents exist, though, to suggest that Steele’s formula will hold up.
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