When you’re talking about the most polarizing prospects in the Rays system, there’s not even a discussion- it’s Justin O’Conner. You could have made the argument for fellow 2010 first round pick Josh Sale entering the season, but Sale has been incredible thus far in 2012. O’Conner has not. O’Conner has hit .310, and his 10 doubles lead the New York-Penn League. But he has managed just 2 walks, leading to just a .328 OBP, against 18 strikeouts, over 30% of his plate appearances. The results have been better this season, but there is still a lot of problems with his game right now. What is going on? That’s the question I asked myself as he watched from the press box on Tuesday night as O’Conner and the Hudson Valley Renegades took on the Brooklyn Cyclones.
Something to note is that O’Conner has now played designated hitter 14 times in 2012, not catching a single game. It seems that the Rays have liked what they have seen from O’Conner defensively the past two years and are just trying to get his bat on track. Progress has been made, but that’s not the case as of yet.
As a 6’0″, 190 power hitter, I expected O’Conner to have an open stance, but that was not the case in his first at-bat as he showed a close stance with his knees bent quite a bit, and he looked like he was trying a gap-to-gap approach. O’Conner actually singled the opposite way, so that looked to be a good sign. Then in his second at-bat, he drilled a double to left-center. Things were looking great. But the more I saw O’Conner, the more his problems became evident.
O’Conner started with a compact swing but that gradually deteriorated throughout the game as his stance got more and more open and his swing got longer and longer. On the double, he got a pitch up and middle-in, and he took a big swing at it, letting his bat power through the zone, and the results were great. But the big issue O’Conner is timing. O’Conner, like some power hitters, shifts his weight from front to back in his stance as the pitch is coming. But his big problem was that his stride was extremely inconsistent. Sometimes it was lower and quicker step while other times it was higher. O’Conner was late on a pitch that he should have slammed, waist-high and on the inside corner, and he took a big swing at it and was way late, hitting a routine grounder to second base.
O’Conner looked to get power-happy as the game progressed. At the start of the game, he looked like he had made significant strides with his hitting, albeit at the cost of some power, and there were a couple pitches that he recognized as mistakes and took bigger swings at, not a bad thing, especially when you’re ahead in the count. But then after that double, he kept going to that bigger swing more and more and had nothing to show for it. Early in the game he looked OK against breaking pitches, but then he got overaggressive and struck out on a slider that looked nothing like a strike. Early in the game, O’Conner’s plate discipline still wasn’t great, but he was able to recognize which pitches he should try to drive. By the end, he was swinging at everything and making solid contact on nothing with a couple of complete whiffs.
The first big thing for O’Conner is going to be to get a more consistent step and get his timing right. Then he’s going to have to work on not just which counts to take a bigger swing on, but which pitches to lay off of, even if they’re strikes, so he can get pitches to hit. O’Conner’s bat speed was above-average at times during the game, and while he’s always going to strike out as a power hitter, if he can just keep his swing from getting too long, he has the ability to hit for a solid batting average. He has also made strides with pitch recognition, and although he’s not yet where he needs to be, he has the ability to get on base at a good clip.
Justin O’Conner continues to be inconsistent. He shows you a couple great at-bats then completely falls apart. But flashes of his potential are becoming increasingly prevalent, and the Rays hope that it’s only a matter of time before O’Conner can get his swing and his approach at the plate right and start hitting like the player they know he can be.