How Chicago Cubs left-hander Justin Steele has kept hitters guessing by altering the motion of his fastball

WASHINGTON — Three weeks later, Chicago Cubs left-hander Justin Steele is laughing at how close he came to making history.

The remarkable stat highlighted the effectiveness of Steele’s four-seam fastball and his ability to keep batters from hitting the pitch. It’s been his strength all season, limiting barrel balls and making him a more efficient shooter.

Steele’s fastball has certainly been in opposing teams’ scouting reports, but one element had gone unnoticed before his July 22 start at Philadelphia.

Steele came close to setting a pitch-tracking record, needing only 21 four-seam fastballs to throw the most without giving up a home run in the field. He was looking to top former San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell’s 807 fastballs in 2010.

Steele saw a tweet with the record information before his start.

“Why did I just read that? Because I thought, it’s totally going to happen tonight,” Steele recalled to the Tribune on Monday.

Steele’s thought proved prophetic. Former Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber jumped on the first pitch Steele threw that night at Citizens Bank Park: a 90.8-mph four-seam fastball that Schwarber hit over the right-field wall. The streak without home runs is over.

The next day, Steele spoke with Schwarber, who told him that he had also seen the tweet before the game.

“That’s the way things work,” Steele said with a smile. “I know if she hadn’t read that that day and hadn’t known about it, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Steele entered Tuesday’s opener against the Washington Nationals with his four-seam fastball accounting for 57.2% of his pitches thrown. He relied on fewer fastballs than average in the 7-5, 11-inning win at Nationals Park, but still produced a quality start, his seventh of the season.

Steele allowed an unearned run on six hits in six innings with two walks and five strikeouts. He lowered his ERA to 3.43, the best among Cubs starters.

Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy joked that Steele’s fastball is consistently inconsistent. When Steele throws his four-seam fastball at a slightly slower speed, he creates more cut, while an increase in speed produces walk and run.

Sometimes the data will make it look like Steele is throwing two different fastballs because of the motion profile. His ability to change his fastball action prevents hitters from trying to cheat downfield when looking for a fastball.

On days Steele hits the inside pitch, he produces more ground balls. His swing-and-miss starts feature a fastball that has more travel and movement.

“When it hits you, even at 90 to 91 mph, and it’s a short arm punch and it’s got late motion, it cuts, it drifts,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “So it’s one of those pitches that not a lot of hitters see.

“Location is important to him. When you focus up in the zone, you will have more carry, and when you focus down, especially down and to the rights, you will have more cut. That’s how his body moves.”

Steele has predominantly relied on a two-pitch combination with his fastball and slider, combining to throw them on 87.4% of his pitches, and the left-hander knows he needs a reliable third pitch.

The fact that Steele has found consistent success without a third pitch indicates how effectively his combination of fastball and throwing motion work in the big leagues. He has worked to maintain consistent mechanics. He sometimes develops a habit of his body being positioned in front of his legs, which causes his arm to drag and try to catch the rest of his throw, which can affect his dominance.

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“I’ve had so much success with him this year because he has that cutting action and it’s not like a typical fastball,” Steele said. “Most guys, when they throw a fastball, it’s going to go away and start running. I’m on the side of that and I just continue to drive right-handers all the time, so it’s not a fastball that you’re used to seeing.

“A big part of this year is staying on my back and having consistency in my shooting, and I would say the by-product is that I’ve been a lot more consistent in the zone.”

Steele sees his changeup, which he’s used just 1.6% (29 pitches) this year, as a secondary pitch that he can elevate to a usable third option, especially when he wants to pitch something away from right-handed hitters. He wants to get to the point where he’s confident in all five of his pitches and comfortable using them on any count.

“The evolution of pitching is you’re young, you probably have a couple of pitches that play in the zone,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “As you get more established, more veteran, you continue to add releases, sequences and locations to your repertoire.

“I am very happy where he is. She is doing a very good job. I love that she wants to improve. I love that mindset.”

However, it all comes back to his unique fastball. Generating two shooting moves with his fastball gives Steele multiple ways to use a pitch. The next step is to learn how to take full advantage of the natural cut, which is still an ongoing process.

“Instead of just pitching it,” Steele said, “I’m starting to pitch with it.”

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