Dad power: Steele sharp off paternity list 

July 14th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Justin Steele managed to get a little sleep overnight into Wednesday, but the Cubs pitcher was needed back at a local hospital in the morning. It was time for Steele and his fiancée to bring their newborn son home.

Little Beau arrived on Monday morning -- on his dad's 27th birthday no less -- and two days later Steele was set to face the Orioles at Wrigley Field. After a pregame power nap, the Cubs lefty turned in a quality start in a 7-1 loss for the North Siders.

Sure, a win would have been preferred, but the outcome hardly spoiled the last few days for Steele.

"The best of my life," said Steele with a smile. "Becoming a dad was just so special. I just bawled my eyes out as soon as it happened. We decided on the name Beau. Literally, I'm just so ready to get back home to him right now and just love on him."

The arrival of Beau for Steele and his fiancée, Libby, provided the exclamation point for what has been a life-changing year for the pitcher. After breaking into the big leagues as a rookie in 2021, Steele earned an Opening Day spot in the rotation and has shown steady improvement across the first half.

Steele's outing on Wednesday was no exception.

Yes, he was charged with four runs (three earned) in the first two innings, but there was a bit of "rust" to knock off, as both the pitcher and manager David Ross acknowledged. Steele had not started since July 4, threw into a net while the team was in Los Angeles and got his bullpen session in a few hours after the birth of his son.

Cedric Mullins got a three-run first rolling with a sharp comebacker that struck Steele's left leg and rolled toward shortstop for an infield single.

"I definitely got a good welcome back," said Steele with a laugh. "First batter, just drilled my leg. I was like, 'All right, right back into it.'"

Between the second and sixth innings, Steele had a stretch in which he held the Orioles to a 1-for-14 showing, including finishing his start by setting down 11 batters in a row.

"He found his groove and looked really good," Ross said. "The fastball was jumping late. The slider, he was able to command that even better later on in the game. I thought he did a nice job of getting back into a rhythm after his first couple innings."

On the season, Steele has posted a 4.15 ERA in his 17 starts, piling up 79 strikeouts against 37 walks in 82 1/3 innings. Really, though, the lefty's season can be split into two parts. He had a 5.40 ERA through May (40 innings across 10 starts) and has a 2.98 ERA since the start of June (42 1/3 innings over seven outings).

One of the biggest adjustments Steele has made since the start of June has been increasing his four-seam usage. Specifically, he has focused on pounding the inner part of the zone with that offering against right-handed batters.

"The things I've seen so far with him, the evolution," Ross said, "it's, 'I've found my strengths,' and have been able to hone in on that, and not kind of searching for changeups and sinkers to both sides of the plate. He's kind of gotten to his strength and hammered that and has had a lot of success."

Entering Wednesday's outing, Steele had held right-handed hitters to a .269 average and .321 slugging percentage on four-seamers since the start of June. Righty batters hit at a .316 clip with a .439 slugging percentage against his four-seamer in the season's first two months.

That aggressiveness with the fastball has helped Steele's slider play more against righties. It was already a weapon against lefty batters, who entered Wednesday with a 31.7 percent strikeout rate and .292 slugging percentage against the pitcher overall this year.

Going into his start against the Orioles, Steele was in the 97th percentile in barrel rate (2.7 percent) and 85th percentile in expected slugging percentage (.351), per Statcast. His 1.8 percent rate of barrels per plate appearance was the best in baseball (min. 150 batted ball events).

"I feel like I've taken steps forward throughout the first half," Steele said. "It's something I want to continue doing into the second half. With every single start, every single day, just kind of take steps forward and become a better pitcher."

Along the way, Steele will also be getting used to fatherhood.

He smirked when asked if he has already tried placing a baseball in Beau's left hand.

"I've definitely been like putting my hand in his left hand," Steele said. "Working around with it, trying to get him used to it. But we'll see how it goes. Whatever he wants to do."

Steele paused, smiled again and added one more thought.

"I wouldn't be mad at a shortstop," he said.