It's been just under a month since the MLB All-Star Break, when the Chicago Cubs were 42-47 and seven games out of first place, appearing certain to sell at the deadline.
The Cubs have since won 16 of their first 25 games out of the gate to start the second half, transforming the team into deadline buyers which saw the additions of infielder Jeimer Candelario and reliever José Cuas.
While the Cubs' offense has been the primary reason behind the team vaulting back into contention, perhaps' the team's largest beacon of consistency that kept the dim hopes alive at all has been left-handed starter Justin Steele.
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Steele, 28, is in his third season in the big leagues and just second year as a full-time starter. After a strong 2022 that saw the southpaw pitch to a 3.18 ERA over 119 innings and 24 starts, Cubs' fans are witnessing an even further elevation of his game this year.
The lefty has tossed 121 innings over 21 starts, only walking 28 and allowing nine home runs while striking out 113 hitters, pitching to a 2.68 ERA.
Steele leads all of baseball with 13 wins and a 171 ERA+, 71 points better than the league average.
Steele's strong performance and simultaneous resurgence have the Cubs have elevated the first-time All-Star's name into the National League Cy Young Award conversation.
In addition to leading the MLB in wins and ERA+, Steele is currently second in the NL in ERA, seventh in WHIP (Walks & Hits per inning pitched), fifth in walks per nine innings pitched, fifth in WAR for pitchers and fourth in Fielding Independent Pitching.
The stiffest competition for Steele in the race is coming from some familiar names, perhaps most notably former American League Cy Young Award winner and current San Diego Padres ace Blake Snell.
The fellow southpaw is perhaps the race's current front-runner, leading the NL in WAR for pitchers and ERA while currently ranking second in the senior circuit in strikeouts and hits per nine innings pitched.
Fellow West Coast hurler Logan Webb has also inserted his name toward the front of prospective voters' rankings with a tremendous season for the San Francisco Giants, currently figuring as the runner-up in WAR for pitchers while leading the league in innings pitched and walks per nine innings pitched.
Last year's NL Rookie of the Year runner-up is also a major figure in this year's Cy Young Award race, as right-hander Spencer Strider has been a vital part of the Atlanta Braves' successes in 2023.
The 24-year-old hurler currently leads the majors with 211 strikeouts, well ahead of NL runner-up Blake Snell's 164 K's. The high strikeout total has expectedly led to Strider also leading the majors in strikeouts per nine innings pitched, with an astronomical rate of 14.35.
Strider's ERA of 3.94 may be too high for some voters to consider him at the moment, but his peripherals and NL-leading 2.94 FIP suggest that bad luck has played a role in Strider's higher-than-expected ERA.
Finally, NL All-Star Game starter Zac Gallen remains in the conversation, despite the Snakes' rapid slide in the standings since the Midsummer Classic.
Gallen, 28, is in his fourth season as the defined ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks' starting rotation.
While not leading the NL in any major statistical categories, the right-hander finds himself near the top of the list in nearly all of them.
Holding an 11-5 record while pitching to a 3.37 ERA, Gallen is the current league runner-up in innings pitched and WHIP, while finding himself in the NL's top five for WAR for pitchersm, ERA, walks per nine innings pitched, strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, ERA+ and FIP.
Gallen's case was perhaps a bit stronger at this time one month ago, but if the Diamondbacks regain their footing and march to the playoffs, the 28-year-old right-hander will almost certainly have something to do with it.
Although it wouldn't be fair to consider Justin Steele the runner-up in the NL Cy Young Award race, his year-long consistent performance spearheaded by some of the most effective command in the MLB has put him firmly in the debate.