Hello and welcome back to Connor’s Corner, a column where I discuss a standout performance in professional sports and that player’s journey from high school to the professional level. It’s finally September, and baseball fans around the world are rejoicing. The end of the regular season is approaching, but the race for the remaining playoff spots is well underway. Teams such as the San Francisco Giants or Miami Marlins are within a game of the final playoff spot, and a similar tight race exists in the American League. The Chicago Cubs, narrowly holding onto the second wild card spot, have been on a decent stretch as of late, and they can attribute much of their success to starting pitcher Justin Steele, who has been on a tear as of late, giving the Windy City playoff hope.
The Chicago ace picked up right where he left off last season, dominating the competition and owning an excellent 2.55 ERA in 152 innings of work. In his outings, the Mississippi native has given up only 11 home runs, a testament to his ability to keep the ball in the yard, which some pitchers have a tough time doing. Steele was so dominant throughout the season that he was chosen to represent his squad in the Midsummer Classic, though the highlight of his season, and possibly career, occurred last Monday in his start against the Giants. Steele pitched eight innings of shutout baseball where he set 12 Giants down on strikes and outdueled another talented pitcher in Logan Webb, all en route to a 5-0 Cubs win. A performance like this puts the Cubs ace into Cy Young consideration, as his dominance at this start and throughout the season is palpable. Monday’s start was one of many things that went right for the 28-year-old last week. On Aug. 29, he had an excellent outing, posting six shutout innings and setting eight batters down on strikes. It was a crucial performance for a Cubs offense that struggled to muster any offense that day, scoring one run in that contest and narrowly coming out on top 1-0.
Before the fame and fortune, the future Cub attended George County High School in Lucedale, Mississippi, and crushed the competition. Steele owned a 0.98 ERA in his senior year, two no-hitters, and 92 strikeouts in 43 innings of work. Steele wasn’t just a threat from the rubber; he got it done from the dish, too, batting .418 with two home runs and 20 RBIs. Because of Steele’s dominance, he was named 5A Player of the Year, subsequently garnering the attention of the Chicago Cubs, who took him in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB Draft.
Sometimes, when a player is drafted out of high school, they choose to attend college to boost their draft stock or have a backup plan, but not Steele, and it’s safe to say that has paid off thus far. Steele faced adversity early in his career; in 2017, he had to get Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss significant time. It’s a life-altering operation–and one that no one is ever thrilled about getting. Despite the setbacks he has faced, the young man from Lucedale has grinded out an excellent career thus far and finds himself as the centerpiece in baseball’s most competitive playoff race.
This will be Steele’s third season in the show, and he has been excellent. As a rookie, he had his struggles, owning a 4.26 ERA in 57 innings of work, undoubtedly a small sample size that skewed this number to be higher than it should have been. Not to mention, a 4.26 ERA in your rookie season is above par, as many talented pitchers struggle early on. In his last two seasons, he has had an ERA below 4.00, including this season, where he owns an excellent sub-three ERA and is a legitimate Cy Young candidate. The young pitcher’s success in the big leagues may partly be attributed to his former teammate, Jon Lester. Lester mentored Steele on technique, specifically helping give his four-seam fastball more of a bite and pitching inside to hitters. It can be said that Steele was copying the three-time World Series champion as photos online show them celebrating getting an out in the same manner.
While there is nearly a month left of the MLB season, many expect Steele and the Cubs to make a playoff appearance. Before the season started, experts predicted that former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman would be the ace of the rotation. However, the 32-year-old has yet to be near his best this season, owning an ERA creeping near 4.00 and is out on the 15-Day IL, not to mention Steele’s success. Steele hopes to emulate his mentor’s success in the fall classic and bring Wrigley its second ring since their 2016 Cinderella run.