The Maturing Talent of Justus Sheffield
David Freier | On 15, Jun 2016
As the college baseball Super Regionals are underway to determine which eight teams get to make the trip to Omaha this year, Justus Sheffield is content that he made the right decision when he chose the Indians over Vanderbilt two years ago.
“It was tough. Vanderbilt had welcomed me in as a family member. I loved everything about it, the campus was beautiful, but I followed my heart,” said Sheffield. “I felt like I was ready to start my professional career.”
Not only did Sheffield turn down the opportunity to become a Commodore, he passed on the chance to pitch on the same team with his brother, Jordan. Having recently finished his junior season as a pitcher for Vanderbilt, following a freshman red shirt while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Jordan was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the First Year Player draft last week.
“It was especially tough with him [Jordan] being there,” said Sheffield. “Very hard to walk away from family.”
After appearing in the College World Series final the past two seasons, Vanderbilt did not make it as one of the 16 teams competing for a chance to go to the College World Series this year. They were one of the two teams that Sheffield followed growing up in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
“The only team you could watch and that was close enough to drive to was the Atlanta Braves, so I was kind of a Braves fan. As I got older, to middle school and high school, I really looked up to David Price.”
Price pitched three years for Vanderbilt, from 2005 to 2007, before being selected first overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007.
“We had the same background, came from the same region, and he is also a left-hander. I modeled my game after him and the way he attacked the game,” said Sheffield.
Sheffield, a 5’10” southpaw, is currently ranked the number four Indians prospect by Baseball America, while MLB Pipeline ranks him fifth. Like his idol Price, Sheffield was a first round pick in 2014, so this season marks his third as he advanced to the High-A Carolina League as a member of the Lynchburg Hillcats.
This is now the second consecutive season in a row where he has been named to his league’s midseason All-Star team. He achieved this on the basis of a 4-3 record with a 3.61 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings pitched – solid numbers for a 20-year-old in High A baseball.
“I had a great time in Peoria,” said Sheffield about last season’s All-Star contest. “Our coaching staff from Lake County were the All-Star coaches, so traveling with them and getting to know them was a good experience. Also meeting the guys from the other teams, now I can walk out on the field and know some other players that I met at that game.”
In 2015, he finished the season second in the Low-A Midwest League in strikeouts with 138, and second in the Indians farm system trailing only Mike Clevinger at AA Akron, who punched out 145 batters last season.
On the mound, Sheffield brings a repertoire of three pitches. His fastball comes at hitters in the low to mid 90’s, and he mixes in a changeup and slider to keep hitters off balance and get ahead in the count.
“I’m continually trying to work on my fastball command,” says Sheffield about his offerings. “Getting my changeup developed into a third pitch where I can get swings and misses and get strikeouts with it is one of my goals, and always to pitch late in the game.”
The Hillcats recently completed a stretch where they played southern division rival Salem 14 out of 28 games. Sheffield has faced the Red Sox in three of his 12 starts this season, and has come away with a win, a loss, and a no decision. The second of these three starts versus Salem was at home and showed the maturation of his mound presence this season.
For the first three innings he very effectively worked his way through the Salem lineup, before running into trouble in the fourth inning.
“I was getting ahead with my fastball and keeping it down and they were getting themselves out,” said Sheffield about his work over the first three innings of the contest.
Over these three frames he allowed two hits, both in the first inning, and struck out two batters. A routine 6-4-3 double play combination erased leadoff hitter Yoan Moncada, the Carolina League leader in stolen bases, who had singled to lead off the game.
In the top of the fourth inning, Salem, down by four runs, threatened the Hillcats lead, but effective work by Sheffield and some excellent defense kept the Red Sox at bay.
“This team [Salem] is really good,” shared Sheffield. “I feel like I made some pretty competitive pitches, they weren’t swinging at them, so it made it harder, and necessary for me to throw the perfect pitch to get them out.”
“They ended up scoring one run on a wild pitch, when the guy [Dubon] went from second to home,” said Sheffield, recounting events from the fourth inning.
He walked the fourth batter of the inning, Rafael Devers, but a good defensive play by center fielder Greg Allen snared a sinking line drive for the second out, and a quick throw in to first base doubled off Devers, who had moved to second thinking the ball was going to drop in safely.
Sheffield would go on to pitch two more innings, allowing only a double and striking out one additional batter.
Though he had worked himself into a tough situation in that fourth inning, Sheffield continued with his game plan and with the help of a strong defense, fought through the difficulty and came out with a strong performance.
“I go out, no matter who I am playing against, with the same intent, go out there and attack, attack, attack,” says Sheffield. “The game situations are different [against Salem] because we’re the two first place teams. Every game we’ve played them are within one or two runs. It’s fun to be a part of that.”
Sheffield will continue to work on developing his repertoire and compete when his turn in the rotation comes up every fifth day, sticking to his goals.
“Staying consistent,” he said, “it’s what I need to do. Stay within my routines, stick to what I’m doing mechanically and go out and do the best that I can.”
So far this season, his best has been very good and has contributed to the Hillcats run in securing the Carolina League’s Northern Division title for the first half.
“He’s very competitive,” says Hillcats pitching coach Rigo Beltran, “A good athlete, he’s worked on pitch development this season, and his changeup has come a long way, it’s a pitch that has become more of an out-pitch now.”
As Sheffield continues to develop, he will continue to earn opportunities to advance in the Cleveland system, and perhaps someday, when the Indians face the Dodgers in interleague play, he may have the chance to pitch against his brother.
Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News and Advance