MESA, Ariz. – Cubs lefty Justin Steele came into camp about 20 pounds heavier and with a new changeup in his arsenal. Not to mention, he has a baby boy on the way. Steele and his girlfriend Libby Murphy are expecting their first child in July.
“That’s a big step,” veteran pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “I told him, ‘Dad strength, it happens immediately, right?'”
To add to the positive changes in his life, Steele is expected to break camp in the Cubs’ major-league rotation – or as Cubs manager David Ross put it Tuesday morning, Steele has a “strong chance” of doing so. Entering his second season, Steele is lined up to pitch third in the rotation to start the year, while veteran Wade Miley continues to ramp up. Ross has not yet announced the rotation order.
“He’s looked really good,” Ross said Tuesday morning. “Building off of last year, ball’s coming out nicely, looks like he’s healthy and going to give us some really good starts.”
Steele went into the offseason knowing he wanted to put on at least a little weight. He’s been sitting between, and feeling good at, about 195 and 205 pounds.
“But over the course of 162 games, you lose weight,” he said. “So I wanted to come into this season with a little extra weight on me, so that when I start losing weight throughout the season, I’ll be ready for that.”
In the first week of camp, he weighed in at 222 pounds, expecting to lose 10 to 15 pounds during the season. He thanks Murphy, who is apparently quite the chef, for that weight gain.
As for the changeup, Steele wanted a bigger drop in velocity from his fastball. Last season, his changeup came in at 88 mph on average, about 5 mph slower than his fastball. He’s looking for closer to a 10-mph difference.
Steele started playing with changeup grips, burying the ball deeper into his hand.
The result has already caught the attention of Hendricks, who relies heavily on his own changeup.
“It’s just gonna be a game changer for him,” Hendricks told the Sun-Times. “His other stuff is elite. If you can just mix that in there, it’s gonna make his stuff even better.”
Steele’s slider and curveball are his go-to secondary pitches, generating whiffs 29.3 and 34.6 percent of the time last season, according to Baseball Savant. A slower changeup, Hendricks predicted, will throw off hitters’ timing even more.
Steele has yet to fully highlight his changeup in three spring starts. In this development stage, he wants to get ahead of hitters before mixing it in. Tuesday was not the day to do so.
“I was too busy trying to find the fastball,” he said with a smile.
Steele’s fastball command issues Tuesday led to four walks in less than three innings. With his pitch count climbing in the second inning, the Cubs took advantage of spring training rules, pulling him with two outs in the frame and then putting him back in for the third inning.
“I would have started flipping a lot more breaking balls or tried something a lot different,” Steele said of how he would have approached the game differently in the regular season. “But I really wanted to find that fastball command and hone it in.”
Spring training is, after all, a time to work through timing issues. Steele found himself forcing the fastball, his upper body getting ahead of his lower body.
Reset ahead of the third, Steele retired the side in order.
“I wanted to go back out there and fix what I was doing wrong,” Steele said. “And I was able to, so it was good to end on that note.”