Steele changes gears as Cubs sweep Twins

September 2nd, 2021

As he warmed up in the bullpen prior to making the fourth start of his Major League career on Wednesday night against the Twins, recognized that one of his two breaking balls felt better out of his hand than the other -- and it wasn’t the one that he turned to most often throughout his first year in the big leagues.

“Early on in the bullpen today, I just kind of recognized -- me and [catcher Austin] Romine both recognized -- that my curveball was a little more effective today,” Steele said. “That's why it's nice having two different breaking pitches. One day one will be there and the other won't. … I was pleased with being able to recognize that my curveball was having more depth, a little more late action on it.”

Steele mixed that veteran-like approach to not forcing his slider -- which he’d thrown on 26.4 percent of his pitches in 2021 -- with the desire of a rookie still getting his first taste as a starter to gain more command of his fastball. The result? The 26-year-old pitched easily his finest outing since being moved into the rotation, allowing one hit over five scoreless innings and earning his first win as a starter as he led the Cubs to a 3-0 victory and a two-game sweep at Target Field.

Steele appeared to take less of a swing-and-miss approach than in previous starts, throwing his slider on just 14 of his 86 pitches on the night. In its place, Steele paired his four-seamer (his most used pitch of the season coming in at 44.1 percent) with a solid two-seam sinker and kept Minnesota’s bats silent.

The two fastballs combined to make up 70.9 percent of his arsenal on Wednesday, and 62.3 percent of them went down as strikes.

“I thought the fastball looked electric, to be honest with you,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I thought he mixed the four[-seamer] and the two[-seamer] well. Sometimes those pitches blend together. I thought tonight, there was real separation in the two[-seamer]. Looked like it was sinking hard. He sped some guys up with the four[-seamer], then sank them away the second time through. Some really good offspeed pitches mixed in there, but I thought the fastball played today just as electric as I've seen it.”

That willingness to stick with his fastballs signaled that Steele was comfortable pitching to contact, as evidenced by a whiff rate (18.4 percent) much lower than his average coming into the game (32 percent).

Steele picked up just two swings and misses in his first 56 pitches and finished with seven whiffs on 38 swings. He wasn’t picking up much soft contact, either, finishing his night with an average exit velocity of 90 mph.

What might’ve been most impressive about Steele’s outing, however, was the poise he showed on the mound.

The Twins put runners on base in three of the first four innings, and they put a runner in scoring position in both the second and the fourth. But in both instances, Steele escaped with easy ground balls to end the frames. Overall, Minnesota put 12 balls in play against Steele, but just three of them had expected batting averages as high as .250.

And just to highlight the command Steele had with his fastball on the night, of the seven ground-ball outs he induced, six came on fastballs.

“Out of all my starts I've had in the big leagues, tonight was the best night as far as commanding both my two-seam and my four-seam,” Steele said. “Something I really was focusing on coming into this start. Even in the bullpen prior to the game, I threw a bunch of fastballs, just making sure I had those two working for me tonight. Like I've said previously, having both of them just makes everything else better.”

The last month-plus of Steele’s season continues to be all about developing him as a potential rotation piece for the future.

As Steele gains more experience as a big league starter, soft contact and swings and misses should come more consistently. But after shutting down the Twins’ lineup, that poise and fastball command he displayed should bring with it even more confidence to not shy away from pitching to contact when he needs to.