USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring each of the 12 finalists for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award during a two-week series leading into the July 15 announcement in Los Angeles. The award is given to the top male and female among the 12 finalists, who won their respective sport’s national player of the year award earlier in the 2013-14 school year. USA TODAY High School Sports administrates the nationwide selection process in collaboration with Gatorade. Today’s finalist, National Baseball Player of the Year Justus Sheffield of Tullahoma, Tenn.
The last time Justus Sheffield was in Los Angeles, he saw Dodger Stadium and little else. This time, he wouldn’t mind doing a little sightseeing.
“Because I didn’t really see Los Angeles the last time (playing with USA Baseball U18 Team), I’m counting this as my first time,” Sheffield said. “Right now, I’m excited to be there (at the Gatorade awards event), no matter what happens. Meeting LeBron James would be crazy, or hopefully David Price. It’s a big event and I’m fortunate enough to be able to be there.”
Sheffield has something in common with last year’s Gatorade Athlete of the Year winner, basketball player Andrew Wiggins. Like Wiggins, Sheffield became a professional athlete last month. Though the left-handed pitcher had signed with Vanderbilt, where his older brother Jordan will be a sophomore pitcher next season, Sheffield couldn’t pass up signing with the Cleveland Indians when he was drafted in the first round, No. 31 overall. He pitched for the first time in a game on Sunday in the Arizona Rookie League, throwing 1.1 innings as the starter, allowing three hits and one unearned run, and his fastball was up to 94 mph.
“I did OK,” Sheffield said. “It was my first time pitching in a little while, so I felt a little rusty. They have me on a pitch count, so before the season ends, I might get to go five full innings in a game.”
While the Indians protect the arm of their new investment, Sheffield is adjusting to the rigors of pro baseball.
“Mainly, they’re letting me do what I’ve been doing as far as my motion,” he said. “They may tweak a little bit here and there. In the fall instructional league, that’s where they really get hands on. Here, you go out and practice every day. It gets up to 110 or 115 degrees and I’m finally getting used to it.”
This past season at Tullahoma, Sheffield was 10-0 with a 0.34 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 61.2 innings. He also hit .405, but since the Indians are an American League team, his bat is gathering dust in Goodyear, Ariz.
“I got drafted as a pitcher, so they’re not letting me hit,” he said. “They’ve told us if we throw a shutout (as a staff), we get to have a pitchers’ batting practice, but we’ve thrown two shutouts and so far, no BP.”
He stays in close contact with Jordan, who is pitching this summer for the Laconia (N.H.) Muskrats of the New England League, a college wood bat league. Jordan is recovering from Tommy John surgery that he had in April, 2013.
“In high school, we always fed off each other’s competitiveness,” Sheffield said. “We always wanted to do better than each other. Now that he’s in college and I’ve already started my pro career, we definitely have each other’s backs. I’m excited for him to get on the mound since I haven’t seen him pitch in a year.”
While deciding on his future, Sheffield said Miami Marlins reliever Bryan Morris, who also pitched at Tullahoma, has been a major help.
“He gives me a lot of advice, and was a big help, especially going into the draft,” Sheffield said. “I appreciate what he does. He doesn’t have to help me out. He does it on his own.”
At 18 years and two months, Sheffield is the youngest player on the Arizona Indians.
“They’ve had some Major Leaguers come through, rehabbing, like Nyjer Morgan (an Indians outfielder) and Mark Trumbo (an Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder),” Sheffield said. “I’m like a little kid seeing all these Major Leaguers, but you have to be cool about it. I’m a professional now. I’m doing what I love and I get paid for it.”
Tullahoma coach Brad White said Sheffield, at 5-10 and 196 pounds, may be more advanced compared to where Morris was at the same age.
“From a pitching standpoint, Justus may be just a little ahead of where Morris was and on the physical side, he’s definitely more mature,” White said. “He already has some of his man strength, as we like to call it. Because he’s a very diligent student, I think that will help him. Instead of learning reading and math, he’s going to be studying baseball.”