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Breaking down Chicago Cubs starter Justin Steele

Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals bats continue to be inconsistent. From April 21st to May 7th (editor’s note: which was when this was written, so before the games against the Cubs), they’ve scored more than five runs in 5 of 16 games, a solid average, but they’ve also scored 1 or fewer in 3 games over that stretch. Unfortunately, they are set to open the week facing off with a Chicago Cubs team that has two dominant starters. The first being Marcus Stroman who the Cards will likely face on Monday. The second, and subject of this article, Justin Steele. The 27-year-old has pitched to a fantastic 1.45 ERA over 43 ⅓ innings this season. As we do in all of these articles, we are going to review his arsenal and a key matchup to look out for.

Pitch #1 - Four seam - 2023 usage rate - 60 percent

2023 stats - .243 xBA, .350 xSLG, .300 xwOBA

Average velo - 92.0 MPH - Spin rate - 2,394 RPM - vertical movement - 21.4 inches (5.8 inches below average) - horizontal movement - 1.5 inches (8 inches below average)

Yes, you read that right, Steele uses his four seamer 60 percent of the time as a starter, an unheard of usage rate. His spin rate on this pitch ranks 57th among the 312 pitchers who throw four-seamers and have 50 or more plate appearances against this year, which places him right behind Max Scherzer. Though the velocity and movement might not be what we would expect from a fastball thrown this often, it has produced a whiff rate of 22.6 percent this season and 20.3 percent last year. He induces a lot of soft contact with it as the average exit velocity against is just 83.5 MPH, down 3.2 MPH from last season. Part of what has led to the four seamer posting better expected metrics this season is a pop up percentage of 9.3 percent. In terms of usage, it is Steele’s most used pitch against lefties and righties with a 64.2 percent usage rate against righties and 48.5 percent against same side hitters. To me personally, after looking at all the metrics, this just screams a pitch that hitters just struggle to pick up for whatever reason with a likely higher than actual perceived velocity.

Pitch #2 - Slider - 2023 usage rate - 35.4 percent

2023 stats - .187 xBA, .277 xSLG, .226 xwOBA

Average velo - 82.8 MPH - Spin rate - 2,658 RPM - vertical movement - 40.9 inches - horizontal movement - 15.7 inches (9.1 inches above average)

The usage on this pitch pales in comparison to his four seamer, but is the equivalent to how often most starters use their number 1 pitch. The spin rate on his slider is even more impressive than his four seamer as it ranks 21st out of the 242 pitchers who’ve thrown a slider with 50 plate appearances against. Steele is able to generate whiffs at a decent rate with his slider at 30.4 percent which is slightly behind his four seamer. The chase whiff rate on it though is an absurd 71.1 percent, more than double his four seamer. Steele, in turn, tries to keep this pitch out of the strike zone as much as possible with an out of zone percentage of 55.6 percent. When ahead in the count, Steele’s usage on his slider does jump all the way up to 47.1 percent, only 0.9 percent less than his four seamer.

Pitch #3 - Sinker - 2023 usage rate - 2.7 percent

2023 stats - .432 xBA, .474 xSLG, .356 xwOBA

Average velo - 91.7 MPH - Spin rate - 2,379 RPM - vertical movement - 20.8 inches - horizontal movement - 6.9 inches (7.7 inches below average)

Traditionally for these articles I try to cut out pitches that are below roughly 6 percent. However, seeing as this is his third most pitch, somehow at only 2.7 percent, I did want to discuss it briefly. He does use this against lefties at a higher rate of 5.3 percent, down significantly from the 19.9 percent from last season. The overall usage rate on the pitch has dipped every season of his MLB career. It was 20.4 percent in 2021, fell to 7.8 percent last season and is not all the way down to 2.7. Because of that prior usage, maybe we see it a bit more Wednesday, but it’s not overly likely.

(I didn’t include curveball and changeup which he’s thrown a combined 12 times this season.)

Key matchup - Lars Nootbaar - It almost goes without saying, but Nootbaar is extremely important for this lineup. As of May 7th, he’s hitting just a hair under .300 and has been leading off in some games of late. His ability to get on base with a .429 on-base percentage make him the table-setter this offense needs. Despite Steele being a lefty I am not too concerned. Nootbaar has not appeared to struggle much again lefties hitting .273 in — an admittedly small sample size — 55 at bats against lefties last season. In his career, which is still just 117 plate appearances, he has a wRC+ of 144 against left-handed pitchers. Again it is a small sample size for sure, but it is encouraging, particularly against a fastball pitcher like Steele. Last season Nootbaar was successful against four seamers and sliders with a combined run value of 2.4.

Prediction - Steele pitches 6 innings, strikes out 7 and allows 2 earned.