Myrtle Beach Pelicans pitcher Justin Steele just turned 22 this week. But if you have a conversation about baseball with the Cubs prospect, you’ll emerge from the talk thinking he’s been around the game for decades.
Taking a very well-rounded and intense approach to his game, Steele has stood out in 2017 as one of Myrtle Beach’s top arms — and he has the numbers to back it up. Through 16 starts, Steele has posted a 2.40 ERA, consistently turning in outings that give the Pelicans opportunities to win.
The Cubs drafted Steele in the fifth round of the 2014 Draft, selecting him out of high school likely with the idea that he’d need time to work his way into and through the Chicago system. The team eased him along through the 2015 season, sending him to single-A South Bend last year to kick off his first full season in pro ball.
There, things didn’t exactly go swimmingly.
Steele stumbled through his 19 starts with South Bend, surrendering 93 hits in 77.1 innings and posting a 5.00 ERA to close out the season – not quite an ideal first full-season campaign.
Flash forward a year later however and the narrative is strikingly different.
Now, Steele has prevented runs and limited damage against better than anyone in the rotation, something that might have something to do with a bit of unconventional preparation.
“This year what’s been helping me the most is the routine that I have set in place,” Steele described. “Ever since we began the season, I’ve had the same routine. Every day that I have my start, I’ve been following my routine pretty religiously and I’d say that mentally, that’s what keeps me in a good position throughout the whole year.”
The idea of a pitcher following a routine, of course, isn’t unconventional at all. Baseball is after all a routine-oriented sport, and pitchers in particular are devoted to maintaining a sense of uniformity to their weekly schedules.
But for Steele, the routine-oriented approach has taken on an important twist this season, perhaps the spark behind his standout season.
“[The season] takes a toll on you physically, but even more so mentally,” he said. “The Cubs have a great program with the mental skills department and they kind of push toward meditation. I’ve done a lot of meditation this year – every day of my start I do meditation before I go out and pitch and it helps a lot.
“A lot of people, when they hear the thought of meditation they shy away from it just because of the stereotypes with it, but it’s been a game-changer this year for me and it’s gotten me mentally prepared for every one of my starts.”
Steele’s approach toward pitching is a simple one – put as much work into the mental side of the game as you do into the physical side.
As he’s attempting to navigate the grind of such a long season, Steele has found that keeping a well-rounded focus has been vital to taking the mound with confidence. And as much as it’s helped him when he’s facing an opponent in the batter’s box, the left-hander says there’s just as much benefit in his off-field life.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just a direct carry over to the game, it’s just a carry over to everything that I do,” Steele noted. “It gets you prepared for what’s coming your way. You’re ready to take on anything that comes your way throughout that day. So, I wouldn’t say it’s just baseball but everything in life. I think everybody should give meditation a try because everyone gets stressed out with whatever they’re doing in life and it’s really, really helped me out along the way.”
Steele has the results that speak for the benefits of meditation, but the discussion of his turnaround can’t be complete without mention of the extreme steps forward he’s seemed to have taken in terms of getting outs and keeping runners from crossing the plate.
Left-handed hitters are hitting just .202 against Steele on the year, just one of the many categories he’s improved upon from last season at South Bend. It hasn’t been a total reinvention, but the changes in his game have been noteworthy.
With the success, it’s given him a bit of recent leeway on the mound to mix things up when it comes time to pile up outs. Steele’s pre-game routine might be set in stone, but there’s often little control over what pitches in his arsenal he might have working on a given night. Because of that, this season has presented an opportunity to fine-tune each pitch in various situations throughout the game.
“I would say I try new things every game because you’re not going to have the same stuff you had the game before. You have to work with something every game,” he said. “Sometimes you’re going to have a good changeup and a bad curveball that day and some days you’ll have a good curveball and a bad changeup… You’re always working with different pitches because you’re not going to have every single pitch every single outing.”
Whether it’s through mixing pitches, focusing on running the day after his starts or eating the same breakfast every morning before he takes the mound, Steele has seemingly settled into his second full pro-ball season like a veteran.
Seeing that he’s just 22, the Cubs probably couldn’t ask for much more.
Moving forward, it’s safe to say the organization hopes to see similar results continue to be posted to keep Steele moving up the system.
For Steele himself, he’s soaking up every bit of the time spent in Myrtle Beach. After all, he’s placed a strong emphasis on focusing on the details – especially the ones that make the environment he’s around enjoyable.
“I’m looking forward to having more years like this because this year has been such a blast. Playing with this team, we have a great team here in Myrtle Beach, a great group of guys... they make showing up to the field every day fun. So, I’m looking forward to years like this,” he said.
“When I play with teams in the future, I want to model it after this because I don’t see how you could get any better.”