Less than two seasons into his professional baseball career, Jon Steitz ’02 has already set himself apart — he is probably the only player in pro ball with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
After spending the spring semester of his senior year with the Beloit Snappers of the Single-A Pioneer League, the right-handed pitcher will return to Yale this May for Commencement to receive that degree. Steitz, a third-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in last year’s amateur draft, earned his diploma in only three and half years in order to balance his academic goals and dreams of making it to the major leagues.
As a senior at the Hopkins School in New Haven, Steitz was drafted in the 44th round of the 1998 draft by the Anaheim Angels. He passed on the offer, though, preferring to pursue his career in college rather than jump immediately to the minor leagues.
Steitz said the choice came down to a simple question: “What do you want to do with the next few years of your life? Spend them on a bus, or have new experiences and meet new people while still playing baseball in college?”
The decision has panned out thus far. Steitz had a standout junior season at Yale — he posted an Ivy League best of 81 strikeouts and the league’s third-best earned run average at 2.66 — and last June he received a call from the big leagues again, this time from the Brewers in the third round.
“He went very high and he was ready to begin his professional career,” Yale baseball head coach John Stuper said. “If he wasn’t ready — if I thought it would benefit him to come back and play another year at Yale — I would have told him. But he was ready.”
During his junior season at Yale, Steitz impressed scouts with his power and his endurance, Stuper said. He pointed to two games in particular, one versus Princeton and another versus Columbia, in which Steitz was able to maintain a velocity in the low 90s into the ninth inning.
“That junior year, every time he picked up a baseball, it was like World War III. There were 100 [radar] guns pointed his way,” Stuper said.
Steitz began his professional career last summer with the Ogden Raptors, a Brewers rookie league affiliate in Utah.
“I was living with a host family and they were Mormon. It was a real culture shock for me,” Steitz said. “I am more of an East Coast type of guy.”
After a summer in Ogden, the Brewers wanted Steitz to attend an instructional league in the fall, but he chose instead to return to Yale to complete his degree. His diploma was important to him and his parents, Yale professors Thomas and Joan Steitz, who both teach in the molecular biophysics and biochemistry department.
“They have always been supportive,” Steitz said. “[Pro baseball] might not have been their decision, but they knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Steitz has struggled this year in Single-A ball in Beloit, Wis., where he is 0-4 with a 6.12 ERA in seven starts. But the former Yale star is not worried by his slow start.
“My velocity has really dropped four to five miles per hour from what it was,” Steitz said. “It is quite common for the first season in pro ball.”
Third round draft picks usually sign for somewhere in the $400,000 to $700,000 range, Stuper said, so the Brewers have a substantial sum of money invested in Steitz. Most likely, he will be given more opportunities than lower round picks to prove himself and make it to the big leagues.
“They are going to give me every opportunity to prove myself,” Steitz said. “It is up to me to work my butt off.”
Stuper knows a thing or two about making it to the major leagues — he spent four seasons as a pitcher with St. Louis and Cincinnati in the early ’80s and has a World Series ring to show for it — and says you cannot put a timetable on making it to baseball’s highest echelon.
“It is not easy to get to the big leagues. It isn’t just talent, if it were it wouldn’t be so hard,” Stuper said. “It’s talent, it’s perseverance, it’s hard work, it’s character, and I think [Steitz] scores well on all of those counts.”
Despite the hard times on the field this spring, Steitz said he is relishing the opportunity to play the game he loves every day. And if baseball does not work out, he knows he can fall back on his Yale degree.
“It is a great accomplishment to graduate from Yale. It is something I am really proud of,” Steitz said. “Hopefully, I don’t have to use [my degree] for 15 years.”