In early 2015, ESPN’s Keith Law clearly put an unintended target on the back of the Cubs 2014 5th round draft pick: pitcher Justin Steele. Law named Steele his sleeper prospect of the year for the Cubs. Steele, who was all of 19 at the time, had only pitched 18.2 innings in the lowest levels of the minors, albeit with some success, where he had a 2.89 ERA with 25 Ks. He did not disappoint in 2015 at short season Eugene. He made 10 starts with a 2.86 ERA and struck out 38 in 40.2 innings pitched. As a result, Steele shot up on prospects lists across the Internet, many on the verge of the top ten.
Baseball Prospectus minor league evaluator Brendan Gawlowski even agreed. He stated:
He’s only 19-years-old, but it’s already easy to see Steele working with two above average offerings at full maturation. The left-hander touches 94, and while he sits in the low 90’s now, he’s increased his velocity over the last two years and he could have a little more in the tank if he gets bigger. He knows what he’s doing with the curve too, a tight 12-7 bender that he likes to use a chase pitch to get strikeouts. If the changeup comes along, he’ll fit nicely in the middle of a big league rotation down the line.
Then 2016 came. It was not a complete disaster, but it was touch and go for a while.
Justin Steele struggled to survive from pitch one at Low-A South Bend. A 9.49 ERA in April was a testament to these struggles. For the rest of the year, Steele put up monthly ERAs under 5, but April had left a bruise. He did, at least, maintain strikeout and walk rates similar to the previous season. However, opponents hit .305 against him, and it was on the road that the biggest contrasts showed. In eleven home games, Steele had a respectable 3.75 ERA, while on the road it ballooned to over 8.
When I watched Steele pitch last year on MiLB.TV, two things stood out.
- He threw a lot of extra pitches nibbling around the edge of the zone to try and get an out.
- His nibbling, in turn, showed a lack of confidence in his arsenal. That would need fixing.
There were rumors of minor injuries, but I did not put stock in those. To me, he just was not pitching well. It was to the point that I thought he might repeat at South Bend in 2017. However, in his last three starts of the year, he only allowed three earned runs as he struck out ten in 18 innings. It was something to build on going into 2017.
Positive reports in spring training this year came early and often for Steele. When the season began, I got to see three of his first four starts on TV. He looked more like 2015 Justin Steele with some minor changes. He was aggressive, he attacked the zone, he did not nibble, and he threw three pitches for strikes – a fastball in the low 90s, a curve in the mid to upper 70s, and a changeup in the low 80s. His delivery looked similar from pitch to pitch. His stride looked very good as he was landing in the same spot pitch after pitch.
I talked with Pelicans’ announcer Scott Kornberg about the difference:
Steele is just trusting his stuff more. It’s tough, because I [didn’t see] him in his couple bad starts last year so I don’t have a way to compare… But he has a great fastball and a great curveball, he’s throwing both for strikes, even the curve in fastball counts. So I think that’s keeping hitters a little off-balance so far.
Steele had been rolling along this season just as Scott pronounced. Then, last night, he gave up 6 runs in 4.1 IP. His ERA went from 1.56 to 3.74. He gave up ten hits but only 1 walk and only struck out one. Before the game, he had struck out 15 in 17.1 IP. Looking at the pitching tracks on Gameday, he looked to be nibbling on the outside again, which is what led him into trouble last season.
It’s still early in the season, and he made four excellent starts beforehand. He also had only allowed three earned runs on the year.
His consistency was a concern in 2016 at South Bend. So far, in 2017, he put together good starts on after another. On Saturday, he did not, but in his next start later this week against Buies Creek, the Astros’ Carolina League affiliate, he has the opportunity to continue building on an otherwise successful season.