Chicago Cubs: Justin Steele and the ability to cope with fielding adversity

Jul 28, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Chicago Cubs manager David Ross (3) replaces starting pitcher Justin Steele (35) after pitching against the San Francisco Giants during the fourth inning at Oracle Park. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 28, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Chicago Cubs manager David Ross (3) replaces starting pitcher Justin Steele (35) after pitching against the San Francisco Giants during the fourth inning at Oracle Park. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports /

Maybe pitchers such as Justin Steele of the Chicago Cubs simply don’t handle adversity well.

Steele is the young Chicago Cubs left-hander who lost a 4-2 decision Thursday night to the San Francisco Giants.

Based on most commonly accepted metrics, Steele pitched decently – maybe even well – Thursday. Before being lifted with two out in the fourth inning, he had struck out six, walked only one and had not surrendered an earned run.

That effort lowered his season-long ERA from 4.02 to 3.86.

Steele lost to some extent because his defense failed him. A pair of Cubs errors led to four Giants unearned runs, and those were enough to carry the night even though the Giants never scored an earned run.

Chicago Cubs defense only issue with Justin Steele

But blaming the Chicago Cubs defense for the defeat is letting Steele off the hook too easily. What also needs to be considered is what Steele did after his teammates put him in compromising positions. The answers are not complementary to Steele.

The problems began with one out in the third inning when Mike Yastrzemski lifted a routine infield popup that Patrick Wisdom appeared to lose in the early evening sky. By the time the ball clanked off Wisdom’s mitt, Yastrzemski was standing on second base.

One strikeout and an infield hit later, Yastrzemski was at third and Austin Slater at first with Wilmer Flores in the box. Any out would bail both Steele and Wisdom out of the situation harmlessly. But after working the count to 2-2, Steele overthrew a breaking ball that clipped Flores on the pant leg, sending him to first and filling the bases.

Steele still had a chance to escape damage by retiring Yermin Merecedes. Instead, he laid a 3-2 pitch in and Mercedes blooped it into center field, scoring both Yastrzemski and Slater. The next batter, Thairo Estrada,  rolled an infield hit between short and third that Nico Hoerner could not play. The result; a third unearned run.

Then in the fourth, David Villar led off with a ground ball that Hoerner threw badly, allowing Villar to reach. A whiff and a groundout later, Slater sent a double over the head of Seiya Suzuki in right that scored Villar with San Francisco’s fourth unearned run and knocked Steele out of the game.

It is easy to blame the Chicago Cubs fielding, which was not good. But the other reality is this: After those errors, Steele faced five hitters in situations where an out would have allowed him to escape additional damage. The results of those five plate appearances: three hits and four runs.

Granted, some of San Francisco’s hits were soft. But Steele’s track record suggests more than bad luck is at work here.

To date, 100 major league pitchers have thrown at least 80 innings, a good baseline workload. The group “Unearned Run Average” of those 100 pitchers – the number of unearned runs they allow per nine innings pitched – is 0.30.

Steele’s “Unearned Run Average” is 0.99, more than three times the major league norm. One of every five runs he has allowed this season has been unearned, an extraordinarily high total considering that the league average is only 8 percent.

Steele’s not alone in seemingly being unable to cope with the reality that his teammates sometimes let him down. Five starters are so far allowing unearned runs at a rate of eight-tenths of a run or more per nine innings of work.

It is perhaps no surprise that the collective won-loss record of those five is 26-43 despite their collective 3.98 ERA, a number that is slightly better than the MLB 4.00 average ERA..

If any pitcher approaches Steele in his inability to deal with teammates’ failures, it is probably Dylan Cease, ace of the cross-town White Sox.

For the most part Cease’s numbers this season are exceptional. He has a 10-4 record and 2.03 ERA in 20 starts encompassing 110 innings to date. He leads the league in strikeouts with 154 and has allowed just 25 earned runs.

But Cease has also allowed 10 unearned runs, as many as Steele or any pitcher this season aside from Patrick Corbin in god-forsaken Washington. That means nearly three out of every 10 runs Cease has allowed this season has been unearned. His “Unearned Run Average” is 0.82, higher than any other pitcher except Steele and Corbin.

For Cease, the nadir probably arrived in the fifth inning of a June 9 game against the Dodgers at US Cellular Field. Cease carried a 4-0 lead into the inning and faced Austin Barnes with runners at first and second and one out, Barnes hit a potential double play ground ball that third baseman Jake Burger manhandled into a bases loaded circumstance.

As bad as the Burger error was, what happened next could only be blamed on Cease. After striking out Mookie Betts for what would have been the third out but was actually only the second, Cease gave up a two-run double to Freddie Freeman, and a run-scoring single to Trea Turner. Turner stole second, hen Max Muncy doubled two more runs home.

When Will Smith followed by drawing a base on balls, Sox manager Tony LaRussa replaced Cease with Matt Foster, who issued a walk and a wild pitch that produced a sixth unearned run. The Dodgers won the game 11-9.

To recap: Facing four batters that could have gotten him out of the inning without damage or at least without further damage, Cease allowed two doubles, a single and a walk and was kayoed.

Seattle’s Marco Gonzalez allowed eight unearned runs in his first three starts. On April 10, in his debut, Gonzalez already trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the first at Minnesota when Alex Kiriloff reached base on a two-out error that loaded the bases. The next batter, Gary Sanchez, hit a grand slam home run.

Facing the Rangers 11 days later, Gonzalez carried a 5-2 lead into the fifth inning. But Texas centerfielder Eli White reached second when Eugenio Suarez threw White’s ground ball wildly to first. Fly balls retired the next two hitters but allowed White to score.

Escaping the inning having allowed just one run would have been good. But after shortstop J.P. Crawford fumbled Mitch Garver’s grounder for the potential third out, Gonzalez gave up a run-producing double to Adolis Garcia, a two-run home run to Nick Solak and a double to Nathaniel Lowe.

Gonzalez left the game trailing 6-5, all six of Texas’ runs officially being “unearned.”

If some pitchers appear to lack the gene that allows them to overcome adversities imposed upon them by their teammates, do others thrive in such situations? The answer appears to be yes.

Two-thirds of the way through the season,11 pitchers have failed to allow so much as a single unearned run despite having been exposed to mound misfortune for at least 80 innings. Those 11, with their number of innings worked in parenthesis, are: Yu Darvish, San Diego (122), Triston McKenzie, Cleveland, (114), Nick Pivetta, Boston (114), Jameson Taillon, NewYork Yankees (109), Jose Berrios, Toronto (107), Chris Flexen, Seattle (106), Carlos Carrasco, New York Mets (104), Paul Blackburn, Oakland (101), Tyler Wells, Baltimore (95), Cristian Javier, Houston (88), and Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs (84).

In some cases, the absence of unearned run trouble can be attributed to superb defense. The appearance of Flexen and Darvish in this list must be due at least in part to the fact that the Mariners and Padres rank first and third for the season in fewest errors made.

Next. Willson Contreras ready to move on from Chicago Cubs. dark

Still, if Flexen is on the list at least in part due to Seattle’s propensity for avoiding errors, what does that say about Marco Gonzalez’s presence near the bottom of the list? And how does one square Hendricks’ ability to deal with a Chicago Cubs defense that has allowed seven fielding errors while he’s been on the mound with Steele’s conspicuous inability to offset the same defense’s miscues behind him?

The logical answer is that some pitchers simply handle adversity better than others.