Baseball is a numbers game, and as of late few pitchers have produced better ones for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans than left-hander Justin Steele.
A fifth round selection of the Chicago Cubs in 2014, the native of Lucedale, Miss., has arguably been at his best this season. In 13 starts for Myrtle Beach — the High-A Cubs affiliate — Steele has a 5-3 record to go along with a team-best 2.32 ERA.
For such work, the Pelicans lefty was one of six players from the club named to the 2017 Carolina League All-Star Game, being played Tuesday in Salem, Va.
“Hard work has really paid off this season,” he said. “I really worked hard this offseason. I was in Baton Rouge (La.) all offseason with Traction Sports, working my butt off every single day, day in and day out getting my arm ready for this upcoming season.
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“I’d say it’s showing because I feel great, body is in shape … best shape of my life.”
Sure, Steele keeps tabs on his game logs, tracking his number of innings worked, pitches thrown, strikeouts, walks and runs allowed. Yet, each of those tend to pale in comparison to the one on his jersey, a gesture less prominently featured around his neck.
The No. 21 on the Myrtle Beach pitcher’s back will match that of his age for the next few months, something he finds merely as a coincidence. However, Steele’s number choice runs rather deep, a tradition passed from one generation of his family to the next.
If we can get (the No. 21), we try to get it.
Myrtle Beach pitcher Justin Steele
“Twenty-one has been in my family for quite a while now,” he said. “My great-grandfather was stationed in Japan, he played professional baseball over there. He was a legendary pitcher over there, he was No. 21. My grandfather played basketball at Southern Miss, he was (No.) 21. Dad played football at Alabama, he was (No.) 21 as well, and my brother played junior college baseball and he was also (No.) 21.
“So it is kind of a family number type of thing. If we can get that number, we try to get it.”
Only once does Steele remember not being able to acquire the beloved number, that occasion coming in 2014 — his rookie season in the Arizona League.
“They just kind of hand you a jersey and you go play. I was No. 32,” he said. “Once I got to (Cubs affiliates) Eugene, South Bend and now here, I’ve been (No.) 21 every time.”
Simply wearing the number isn’t enough, however. With every opportunity to take the mound, Steele said he is taking the family’s competitive fire with him.
“I can remember growing up, my dad was also really good at basketball. I just remember it would be me, him and my brother playing HORSE or doing whatever in the backyard on our basketball goal,” the Pelicans hurler said. “Even me and my brother playing baseball in the backyard, everything was competitive. Even playing video games, it was also something really competitive, there were no easy games.”
I think about it sometimes, you know, where a situation would happen or something like that would remind me of something my brother told me, or my paw-paw or pitching coach. It kind of drives me to be better.
Myrtle Beach pitcher Justin Steele
It also helps working with one of the Carolina League’s more talented pitching staffs.
Myrtle Beach pitchers have seen the most work (597.2 innings pitched) in the Carolina League, while ranking second in overall team ERA. The unit’s efficiency also has been on display through the first half, walking 209 batters through Friday night’s game against Down East, good for third-least on the circuit.
Roommates with fellow pitchers Ryan Kellogg, Casey Bloomquist and Scott Effross, baseball is a constant subject for the group, each of them regularly offering tips and critiques of recent appearances.
“It never stops,” he said. “When we get back home to the apartment, it is what we talk about. We talk about we pitch to guys, how our arms are feeling.
“It kind of helps each other, because next week I might be facing that same team. On the mound, I might remember Kellogg said this hitter, or Effross said this about this hitter. All of those guys are great pitchers, we really communicate and learn from each other.”
By the numbers
5-3 Record for the 2017 season
2.32 Steele’s earned run average (ERA) this season, among the best in Carolina League
6 Consecutive starts without a loss
55 Number of strikeouts thus far in 2017