Pro Ball No Intimidation for Justus Sheffield

A year ago, Justus Sheffield was a senior in high school, getting ready to turn the page toward his life beyond high school. Baseball was in his family (although him being the nephew of Gary Sheffield is a myth, his dad still played baseball in college and his mom played softball). He had played football and basketball in high school but decided baseball was going to be the sport for him to pursue in college. He was going to follow his brother, Jordan, and play baseball at Vanderbilt University for Tim Corbin, a two-time SEC Coach of the Year. He had just been the first baseball player from Tennessee to be named the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Things were looking pretty good for Sheffield.

Then, on Thursday, June 5, he got drafted.

“[The draft process] was easy,” Sheffield said. “I had watched my brother go through it a year before so I wasn’t too nervous. But, on draft day, you still get those butterflies.

“In the college selection process, you basically get to pick where you want to play. In drafting, you have no idea where you’re going to end up; it’s just whatever team wants you the most.”

Sheffield found himself becoming the 31st draft pick of the 2014 First Year Player Draft when he was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the first round. Suddenly, he had a decision to make. Until then, his future had been clearly laid out in front of him: Vanderbilt with Jordan. Jordan had been drafted by the Red Sox the year prior but had suffered an elbow injury and chose to pursue a collegiate career instead. That was the experience Sheffield knew.

Sheffield contemplated his choices. Vandy or pro ball? Brother or brand new teammates?

It didn’t take long to make a decision.

CaptureAs early as the evening of June 5, it was being reported that Sheffield had agreed to terms with the Indians that included a $1.6 million signing bonus and tuition to eight semesters at Vanderbilt.

Just like that, his future had changed, and Sheffield embarked on his professional baseball career.

“I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision,” Sheffield said, adding that he’d like to go back to school at some point and earn his college degree. “I have a brother at Vanderbilt right now, so it had a lot of pull. It would be a great college to go to, but I went with my gut feeling and it led me to pro ball.”

Sheffield spent his first season with the Arizona League Indians, where he and the team earned bragging rights and hardware as they took home the championship title of the Arizona League. Sheffield went 3-1 with a 4.79 ERA in eight games (four starts). He pitched 20.2 total innings, allowing 16 runs (11 earned) on 24 hits, while walking nine and striking out 29.

“We had a great season last year,” Sheffield said. “My mindset this year is not to go out there and do too much, to just play my style of baseball.”

His performance was enough to earn him a coveted jump to the Low-A Lake County Captains to start the 2015 season, skipping right over a stint with the short season Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the next traditional step on the totem pole that is the Indians organization.

“Not at all,” Sheffield said when asked if the jump intimidates him at all. “The game never changes, it just depends on how you play the game. You have to go hard at it. In high school, you’re facing 16, 17, and 18 year olds. Now, you’re facing 25 year olds. The game doesn’t change, but you have to learn how to read different situations.”

Sheffield did hit a bump in the road during his offseason, when he and two others were arrested after breaking into a residence around 4:30 a.m. on January 12. Sheffield reportedly accused a sleeping man of “messing around with his girlfriend,” according to the Tullahoma News. Sheffield posted bond and was released, and subsequently pled guilty to charges of underage drinking and criminal trespass on January 22. Sheffield was handed down a deferred judgment by the court; if he remains out of trouble for a year, his record will be expunged.

Sheffield does not seem to be shaken by the offseason misstep. “I’m working to improve the command of my pitches, starting with my fastball, working in and working out, and not trying to do too much. This season, I’m working on just playing the game, getting quick outs, and keeping my pitch count low.”

Along with a fastball, Sheffield also throws a slider and changeup. Which is his second pitch, he said, depends on the day, but he generally feels comfortable throwing either.

At first glance, Sheffield doesn’t automatically look like a pitcher by which to be threatened. He is 5’10” and 196 pounds, hardly a big, power thrower.

“I was able to see him quite a bit in early camp in Spring Training,” Pitching Coach Steve Karsay said of Sheffield. “He’s a mature 19 year old. He’s got a good aptitude and he’s one who has a real good feel of his pitch mix. It’s delivery stuff he’s trying to smooth out.

“He’s able to leverage the ball in the bottom of the zone. He’s going to have to pitch down in the zone; he can’t pitch up and let his ball flatten out, he’s going to have to create leverage in the bottom of the zone.”

“He know how to pitch,” Karsay said. “Sometimes he tries to overpower guys with his stuff, which is where he gets in trouble. He may overpower some hitters in this league with just raw stuff but, as you climb ladder, you can’t get away with nearly as many errors like that.”

“[He’s] a good dude,” Sheffield said of Karsay. “I got to spend some time with him in Spring Training. He seems awesome. I’m looking forward to working with him. I heard he had a good career and I’ve talked to him about it a little bit. I’m ready to pick his brain.”

Already this season, Sheffield is 1-0 in two starts with a 0.00 ERA. He has given up six hits in 9.2 innings, and has allowed one unearned run to cross the plate. He has walked four batters this season while striking out 10.

“It’s hard for me to judge myself,” Sheffield said, giving fans a call to action:

“You’ll just have to watch me and judge me yourself.”

Photo: Lake County Captains

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