Where does Justin O'Conner stand now?

The Rays had big expectations for 2010 first round pick Justin O’Conner for the 2011 season. Instead, they’re left shaking their heads. O’Conner had the most disappointing season of any Rays farmhand, posting numbers that nobody wants to see. He posted just a line of just .157/.234/.354. He did hit 8 doubles and 9 homers, drive in 28, and steal 4 bases in 5 tries, but he struck out 78 times an undeniably horrific 39.6% of his plate appearances (league average 21.4%) while walking just 17 times, a rate just above the league average at 8.6% of his plate appearances. What in the world happened?

At lot of people considered the Rays lucky to get O’Conner at 31st overall in the draft. He was known for having two very good tools, his power and his arm behind the plate. But the big question with him was his pure hitting, which no one rated as better than average. That was his downfall in 2011. Other than striking out such a ridiculous percentage of the time, O’Conner also failed to hit line drives according to Minor League Central, posting just a 6.9% LD%, less than half the league average of 14.1%. His power was certainly on display as 22.5% of his flyballs to the outfield and 8.9% of the times he put the ball in play compared to the league averages of 9.7% and 3.0% respectively. But the lack of line drives decimated his BAbip (batting average on balls in play) as it came it at just .207, well bellow the league average of .320. Keep in mind that BAbip doesn’t even include strikeouts. So basically all O’Conner did well offensively in 2011 was hit for power. He did legitimately nothing else well. How can he fix that?

O’Conner’s plate discipline was solid in 2011. He walked in 8.6% of his plate appearances, just above the league average of 8.5%. His knowledge of the strike zone wasn’t elite, but it was at least decent as he swung at 82.0% of pitches he faced in the zone and 29.4% outside the zone compared to the league averages of 88.9% and 24.6%. But the big problem was that he was swinging and simply wasn’t connecting. He made contact on just 35.8% of his swings in 2011 compared to the league average of 56.5%. On pitches in the zone, he made contact an even worse 33.9% of the time compared to the league average of 55.8%. Nearly 30% of the pitches thrown to O’Conner were swinging strikes. Because of all this, pitches were pounding the zone to the best of their ability against O’Conner throwing 70.8% of their pitches in the strike zone against him compared to the league average of 68.5%. How can O’Conner negate all this?

The bottom line is that O’Conner needs to stop swinging for the fences on every pitch. He has great power- everybody knows that- but he has to cut down on his swing and make more contact if he wants to be a good baseball player. It doesn’t matter that he’ll hit for a little less power- he’ll make contact more, hit more line drives, and even though a lesser percentage of his flyballs to the outfield will go for home runs, his power numbers will increase quite a bit overall. O’Conner has to mature as a baseball player, and the way he will do that will be to cut down on his swing.

A good sign for O’Conner in 2011 was that while he was struggling so mightily at the plate, his defense was solid. He posted just a .971 Fld% and allowed 9 passed balls, something to be expected since he’s a pretty recent convert to catcher, but he showed off his arm, posting a nice 36% CS%. Hopefully he’ll continue to mature defensively as well.

Justin O’Conner is not abject as a prospect. He was awful in 2011, but all his numbers showed was a need for an adjustment in his swing. O’Conner turns just 20 on March 31st. He still has time. He just needs to make that adjustment and he should be fine as a prospect. The competition between O’Conner and Luke Bailey (who I talked about here) hasn’t been very interesting to this point as both have struggled. But just like Bailey, O’Conner will start showing how good of a prospect he is starting next season, and that competition will really heat up. Justin O’Conner is a very talented baseball player. His upside is still as high as ever, and we’ll start seeing that next season.

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