Fresh out of high school and with plans to come and play baseball for Yale, right-handed pitcher Jon Steitz ’02 declined an offer to play for the California Angels.
And as his career at Yale progressed, the attention from scouts and the media heightened, culminating in his third-round selection by the Milwaukee Brewers during last June’s Major League Baseball draft. Steitz, the 88th overall pick — a selection that earned him $500,000 — successfully petitioned the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing for early graduation, and he will depart Yale in December to begin spring training in Maryville, Ariz.
At 17, Steitz decided not to play for the Angels, believing he needed more time to mature. He now feels ready to compete at the professional level, as his time at Yale allowed him to develop the rest of his game.
College baseball, Steitz said, let him get bigger and stronger while growing up and getting adjusted to pressure.
One aspect of Steitz’s game that has improved is his power. He pitched an 87-91 mph fastball three years ago, while he now pitches at 90-94 mph.
Steitz had a 2-4 record and a 2.66 ERA for the 2001 Ivy baseball season. An honorable mention All-Ivy pick, he was 17th in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings.
Yale baseball head coach Jon Stuper supports his pitcher’s decision to join the pros, recognizing that Steitz is ready to make the transition.
“College baseball is sheltered, and the majors are the real world,” said Stuper, a former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. “But Jon was ready in every way that I saw.”
Stuper said that Steitz gained physical and mental maturity during his years at Yale in addition to command of his strike zone.
“Jon found himself as a pitcher,” Stuper said. “He has always had the ability, and sometimes with pitchers it just takes a while to click. He was a typical hard throwing right-hander, and getting command of the strike zone when you throw as hard as he does is [difficult].”
Stuper is no stranger to watching his players walk the ways of the major leagues. He has had 17 players sign in his 10 years at Yale. His custom is to insist that the draftee finishes his degree, and he talks with each player extensively about the realities of what he calls the grind of pro baseball.
But Steitz’s reaction to the constant attention makes Stuper the proudest.
“He was so highly scrutinized and hearing how wonderful he was all the time, yet he remained a really good teammate,” Stuper said. “I always felt like he pitched for Yale first, and I am the proudest of him because of that — not because of the high draft or the radar guns.”
And Steitz experienced the lifestyle for which Stuper prepared him this summer, when he played for the Ogden Raptors in Salt Lake City, part of the Pioneer League. The Pioneer League is one of four rookie-ball leagues, the lowest tier of the minor leagues, but is a standard league for first-year draftees. The other rookie ball leagues are the Appalachian, Gulf Coast and Arizona — where Steitz will play in the spring.
“A lot of the minor leagues is just getting comfortable with the travel and playing every day,” Steitz said. “But it’ll get better as the leagues move up.”
The division in which Steitz played has the largest travel area.
Steitz went 2-4 this summer with a 6.68 ERA, numbers that he said are misleading because of the strict pitch-count required of new draftees. The Utah altitude also made a difference in his pitching style.
“A curveball doesn’t break as much, and the ball carries a lot further,” he said. “It is a tough league for a pitcher.”
His 28 strikeouts were 12th on a team of 23 pitchers, while his 25 walks were second most.
Steitz immediately recognized the difference in levels of play between the Ivies and his summer league. He noted that routine plays are always made and that players do not make many errors.
But even after his summer in the minors, Steitz said that it really hasn’t hit yet that he is playing professional baseball.
“I won’t feel it until Yale starts playing fall games and I am not a part of it,” he said. “I still feel like I am on the team but the meetings don’t apply to me anymore.”
Steitz is not the only one feeling his absence on the Bulldog squad.
“We are going to need some of the young guys to step in and have an impact,” Eli captain Craig Breslow ’02 said. He added that the team only has a few upperclassmen pitcher, and that Steitz’s dependability will be missed.
Still, Breslow did not criticize Steitz’s decision.
“Being in his position, it was the right choice for him to make,” Breslow said. “He had nothing left to prove at the college level.”
Steitz, who turns 21 today, grew up in Branford, Conn. and played baseball for Hopkins. He is also the son of two Yale professors — Joan and Thomas, who are both Sterling professors in the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department.
Although Steitz plans to graduate with a degree in MB&B, his mother said that family influence probably was not a big factor in his academic pursuits.
“I think he was majoring in baseball,” she said.
Steitz finished his Eli career with a 7-11 record and a 4.21 ERA over his three-year career.
The team will grant him the weekend off so he can walk with his classmates at Commencement May 27.