How will the Chicago Cubs handle Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele as pitchers near the highest workloads of their careers?

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Chicago Cubs are still a week away from the All-Star break, but two pitchers are already on the cusp of the heaviest workload of their careers.

Right-hander Keegan Thompson and left-hander Justin Steele are among the highlights of a disappointing season for the Cubs. Through the first three months, both consistent pitchers have ERAs above 100, which is league average. Left-hander Drew Smyly, who came off the disabled list Sunday to try to avoid a four-game sweep at Dodger Stadium following Saturday’s 4-2 loss, is the only other Cubs starter above that. brand.

Thompson, 27, and Steele, 26, are already approaching uncharted territory with their workload.

Steele, who has spent the entire season in the rotation, has pitched 76⅓ innings in 16 starts. He is less than five innings away from surpassing his combined 2021 innings between Triple-A Iowa and the majors. Now in his ninth season with the organization, Steele has posted just one more innings season than last year. He pitched 98⅔ innings at High A in 2017 before Tommy John surgery ended his season.

Thompson’s 77 innings in 19 appearances, including 11 starts, have already led him to exceed his 2021 season total (67 innings) with Iowa and the Cubs. His career high in a season since the Cubs drafted him five years ago came in 2018 with 129⅔ innings. Thompson could top that in early September.

“It’s just doing everything you can between starts to recover, whether it’s taking a day off or whatever,” Thompson told the Tribune on Saturday. “Recovery is the most important thing.”

Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Tribune there is no hard innings limit on Thompson or Steele. He anticipates the Cubs getting creative with how they might handle the duo’s respective workloads during the final three months of the season.

Among the Cubs’ options, according to Hottovy: Skipping a start if there’s a scheduled day off, rearranging the rotation coming out of the All-Star Break when the Cubs open in Philadelphia on June 22, or finding spots to give an extra day between starts. . Steele is receiving extended time off due to the impending birth of his child; after starting Monday in Milwaukee, he did not join the Cubs in Los Angeles and went on the paternity list Saturday.

“It’s an important way to continue to minimize or just control the number of entrees these guys are going to eat this year,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “But there is also a part of me that never has the right answer. … Guys don’t throw 180 innings until they do. Guys may or may not. And I think we play this game a lot of times trying to protect the guys and say, okay, maybe if we do it this year, it will happen next. we don’t know. We don’t have an 8 ball to control the future.”

In six of Steele’s 16 starts, he was sent into the next inning without completing the frame. Notably, in each of Steele’s last three starts, manager David Ross kept him in to start the sixth (twice) and the seventh on a hitter-to-hitter approach. He couldn’t get through both innings cleanly, reaching the 100-pitch mark both times.

Since Thompson has fully transitioned into the rotation, he’s also being challenged. In four of his eight starts since early June, he’s started an inning and been taken out without coming out. Two of those instances came in the seventh inning, the first times of him throwing that deep early on. A fly ball dropped by right fielder Seiya Suzuki in Friday’s loss to the Dodgers, which should have ended the sixth, instead allowed an unearned run to score and ended Thompson’s night due to a pitch count (96), the highest of the season.

There are tactical and matchup-related reasons to take starters out for another inning knowing they might not finish it and walk away with runners to the bullpen. But it also has its roots in player development. Hottovy believes it’s important for pitchers, especially young and inexperienced pitchers, to understand what it feels like to pitch with fatigue.

The bullpen has been a strength for most of the season, which allowed the Cubs to use this approach. Hottovy and Ross rely on their relievers to handle dirty innings and high-leverage moments. So the Cubs have picked their spots to challenge the starters with a particular focus on Thompson and Steele. The Cubs’ 34-51 record and fourth place in the division create more room for long-term vision and development.

“Sometimes when you send them in there, they’re gassed, and it’s like, no, we want to see what you can do, in a reasonable way,” Hottovy said. “And yes, many times it doesn’t work. It may backfire, but we’re trying to build these guys up for the postseason, to go deeper into the season, go deeper into games and pitch in those high-leverage situations. So I think those are important learning opportunities for guys, and you have to juggle that when you’re also trying to win games.”

With the 13-pitcher limit and an increasingly taxed Cubs bullpen, there’s a greater emphasis on getting as many outs as possible from starters. Who is available outside the bullpen on any given day can be a factor, as can matchups against the opposing lineup. Ross takes those scenarios into account when determining whether to send the incumbent out for more.

“All of that affects us,” Ross told the Tribune. “Depending on where we’re going and how many multi-inning guys we have in the bullpen, Keegan isn’t there anymore, so he doesn’t give us a bullpen reset. So you have to be aware of that and understand that I may need a little bit more from you, and these guys have handled that very well.”

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At this point in the season, 85 games into the 162-game schedule, the Cubs are looking at Thompson and Steele’s fatigue numbers and how they bounce back from start to start.

“Every start we go deeper into the season, that’s more innings than they had last year, but also every start we go deeper into the season, that adds innings to our total that we’re going to get for next year,” Hottovy said. “We will make decisions when we believe it is necessary.”

Ideally, the Cubs want Thompson and Steele to pitch until the end of the season, both from their first full years in the majors. It will teach your body what it takes physically and mentally to get through the last month. Hottovy explained that by September, everyone is exhausted, so mentally, a pitcher needs to figure out what to do between starts to take care of himself.

“I think it’s very important to be able to go through that,” Hottovy added.

However, the Cubs won’t pressure pitchers if they think a break is needed or they’re getting fatigued. The organization will want to be smart about how they monitor and manage workloads, particularly during September. Beyond publicly available data like Statcast velocity trends and spin rates, the Cubs have internal data to look at a pitcher’s fatigue from bullpen sessions and work between starts, including room routines. of weights

Communication and feedback from pitchers are also an important part of the equation. For Thompson, it’s about learning what your body needs so you can be effective next time. He appreciates the Cubs pushing him further, and the organization hopes these learning moments will pay off when they’re repositioned as postseason contenders.

“It’s been a huge confidence boost for sure,” Thompson said. “I wish I could finish those innings more, but it’s nice that they have the confidence in us to go out there and try to get the last inning so we know what it’s like and have the experience. If you have the experience, you have more confidence for the future.”

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