Hometown Kid to Homegrown Ace: Justin Steele putting on for George County
When George County High School graduate Justin Steele woke up this morning, he had the fifth best earned run average in all of Major League Baseball.
The kid from Lucedale, Mississippi is turning into an ace from the Windy City right before our very eyes.
“It gets better and better pitching at Wrigley. Every time I step foot on that field whether I’m pitching that day or just shagging BP, it’s like, man, I have the coolest office in the world.” Almost nine years after being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB Draft, Justin Steele is finally starting to become a household name.
Just last week, the now 27-year-old lefty tied a franchise record with 14 consecutive starts allowing two runs or fewer with 2016 World Series champion Jake Arietta. “I was aware of the stat and stuff, but for me, I really don’t pay too close attention. I mean yeah, like I said it’s just, I’m going out there and just trying to give the team a chance to win and right now I feel like I’m doing my job, and it definitely feels good to do your job, but it is a long season and it’s 162 and it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Among qualified pitchers, Steele has the lowest ERA in all of baseball, dating back to the second half of last season at a clip of 1.47.
Through eight starts this season, his mark of 1.82 is fifth best in the Bigs and, just to put that in perspective, his ERA is lower now than it was his sophomore and junior years for the Rebels.
The key to success is a wipeout slider that he throws more than 35 percent of the time plus what his teammates like to call a ‘country fastball’ which he throws more than 60 percent of the time, placing him in the 98th percentile of hard-hit percentage, according to Baseball Savant. “I don’t know where that resonates from. Maybe it’s a George County, something Tim Davis taught me when I was younger or something. I don’t know. “
However, Steele’s story isn’t one of overnight success, struggling in 2016 before undergoing Tommy John surgery at the end of 2017 and then fighting for Rule 5 protection in 2018 before struggling again in 2019 with a 5 plus ERA and finally losing an entire season due to COVID-19 in 2020.
One of the bright spots during that stretch came in May 2019, when Steele played his first game back in Mississippi for the first time in more than five years as a member of the visiting Tennessee Smokies at Biloxi’s MGM Park. “I remember when I pitched in Biloxi, there was a ton of people that knew of me, knew me personally or just knew about me that showed up to that game, when that was definitely one of the more important moments of my career was going to pitch back home in Biloxi, close to home, and having that many people show up.”
George County Pitching Coach Tim Davis said, “I told somebody earlier, it’s just mind-blowing that a kid from George County has done what he’s done and he has thoroughly changed everything about George County. I mean all the kids, there’s two kids sitting right here beside me and they look up to him, idolize him and just think he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to George County baseball.”
That start coming just a month after Logan Tanner and Trevor McDonald finished their senior seasons at George County. Now, they’re both following in Steele’s footsteps as members of the Reds and Giants organizations respectively.
Walker Robbins also turning pro in 2016. “Getting drafted, I give a lot of the credit to Tim Davis. He’s the one that got me pitching, got me throwing hard. I mean he’s done it a few times now. There’s been a few guys come out of George County now to get drafted, and whether they were hitting or pitching, they all threw hard. I can guarantee you that. If anything, I just showed that it was possible for somebody out of a small town like Lucedale, Mississippi or wherever the case may be, that it is possible.”
From hometown kid to homegrown ace, Steele is now rewarding the Cubs for their loyalty over the last decade just as he remains loyal to the 601. “For me, it’s just nothing but blessings, and I thank God every single day for all of the family and friends back home who have followed me on this journey, and it just means so much to me.”
Another George County guy that went pro out of Southern Miss is Mason Robbins also in 2014.
Steele says his favorite pitcher growing up was Tom Glavine and his favorite team was the Philadelphia Phillies.