Cubs’ Justin Steele looking for better balance against opposing hitters

After becoming a proud father Monday, Cubs left-hander Justin Steele is looking forward to seeing his infant son Beau grow.

As for Steele’s development with the Cubs this season, there were some growing pains that he can stand to learn from in the second half.

Specifically, Steele seeks to gain more consistency against right-handed hitters.

“That’s my main focus,” said Steele, who concluded the first half of the season with a 7-1 loss to the Orioles.

The score didn’t exactly reflect Steele’s performance, but it mirrored his snippets of success offset by his struggles — particularly against right-handed hitters.

His improvement against right-handers will be one of the measuring sticks used by the Cubs as they assess his progress as a starting pitcher. Steele, 27, needs only 161/3 innings to match his professional high in innings (982/3) set in 2017 at Class-A Myrtle Beach.

Right-handed hitters are batting .243 against Steele — 24 points lower than lefties. But right-handers’ slugging percentage (.358) is considerably higher than left-handers (.293).

Steele, like Keegan Thompson, will be watched closely due to their increased workload. That will be a delicate matter, considering left-hander Wade Miley has been sidelined for most of the season because of a left shoulder strain, and ace Kyle Hendricks could be sidelined through August because of a similar ailment.

But Steele’s mission appears more narrow and essential because of the abundance of right-handed batters he faces and his lack of a dominating fastball.

Nevertheless, Steele isn’t afraid to pitch inside to right-handers, and improved pinpoint control can help him achieve that mission.

“Just pitching up and down and popping it away as well with the sinker and the changeup off of it,” Steele said. “There’s always room for improvement.”

Steele retired the final 11 Orioles batters and pitched at least six innings for the third consecutive time and for the fifth time in his last eight starts.

But that came well after he failed to put away right-handed hitter Ryan Mountcastle in an 11-pitch at-bat that led to a single and set up a three-run first that the Cubs never recovered from.

Steele was admittedly rusty after eight days between starts due to the birth of his son, but he understands there is no room for error. The four runs allowed in the first two innings equaled what Steele allowed in the first two innings of his previous 16 starts.

“It’s always important to be consistent,” Steele said. “It’s important to get better with each start and learn, as well as pay attention to the guys you’re facing.”

There have been other starts, such as his seven-inning outing June 13 against the Padres, in which Steele was able to locate his fastball effectively while allowing only one run.

In a sport that has placed an increasingly larger premium on power, Steele has adjusted nicely. He has allowed only five homers — seven fewer than he allowed in 57 innings in 2021.

Steele’s strikeout rate has dipped from 23.8% in 2021 to 21.9%, but manager David Ross has been pleased with the soft contact Steele has induced to right-handers and attacking them with his fastball and slider aimed at their back foot.

“When he’s in the strike zone and attacking the zone, he’s really hard to hit,” Ross said.

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