Coming into this year, some even wondered why Justin O’Conner was still playing catcher. The former first round pick in 2010 had shown little hitting ability in 4 seasons in the lower minors despite good raw power, and he had shown promise as a pitcher in the past. His stock as a prospect was falling hard, so trying to salvage his career as a pitcher made sense. But the Rays showed faith in O’Conner, and he has rewarded that faith with a breakout year that recently resulted in a promotion to Double-A Montgomery per Josh Vitale.
Coming into this season, the highest wRC+ that O’Conner had posted was 92, meaning that at his best he was hitting 8% below league average. But this year O’Conner has put up a .282/.321/.486 line, good for a 128 wRC+, meaning that he was 28% better than the Florida State League average. His K% is the lowest of his career at 22.9%, though his BB% is also a career-low at 4.4%. On top of that, O’Conner has continued to impress with his arm strength, throwing out 50% of runners and also picking off 14 runners. O’Conner has boosted his stock tremendously with this breakout season, and all of a sudden once again it looks like he could factor into big league plans in the future.
Of course, there is still plenty of work for O’Conner to do. The drop in his walk rate, which was never inspiring in the first place, has to be concerning. O’Conner’s biggest challenge is going to be making progress with his plate approach and increasing his walk rate while still lowering his strikeout rate. Also, O’Conner still has to continue learning the intricacies of catching. He is a good pitch framer and is an athletic catcher, but his receiving skills have a bit of work to do. His performance does need to be taken with a grain of salt; after all it is in just an 80 game sample size. Still, at just 22 years old he still has some time to put everything together.
Justin O’Conner has used this season to turn his career around, and all of a sudden he is back on the map as a prospect. His .284 average might be a bit too good to be true, but his hit tool has made significant progress, and that has allowed his raw power to finally show up in games. It seems that O’Conner’s future likely lies as a good backup, but if he keeps taking leaps like he has this year he could continue to surpass expectations.