With Catching Career on the Line, Rays’ Justin O’Conner Finally Hits His Stride

By Robbie Knopf

The Rays’ patience was wavering–how much longer could they send Justin O’Conner up to the plate when his struggles just would never end? He was striking out at crazy rates, almost never walking, and not even hitting for any power, and the 2010 first round pick looked everything like a bust. It didn’t matter that he had great bat speed and prolific raw power when he couldn’t dream of making them materialize in games with even the slightest consistency. And defensively at the catcher position, O’Conner was just about as bad. His arm strength was even more impressive than his raw power, but his receiving was lightyears away from being to handle A-ball stuff, let alone anything more. And speaking of his arm strength, that was the nail in the coffin for O’Conner’s career as a position player. O’Conner hit 95 MPH off the mound in high school, and why should the Rays continue to let him sputter spectacularly at the plate and behind it when he could have a big league future as a pitcher? Every strikeout and every passed ball brought O’Conner one step closer to the end of his career as a catcher and the beginning of his career as a pitcher. But then out of nowhere, everything clicked. O’Conner’s future is very much up in the air, but he’s not quite done as a catcher yet.

In his last six games, O’Conner has collected a hit in each game. This isn’t his first hot streak–maybe this is just O’Conner getting lucky for a few games? But he’s never done anything like this. In his last six games, O’Conner has a .400/.500/.920 like with 4 homers, a double, 11 RBI, and a 7-4 strikeout to walk ratio in 30 plate appearances. He has homered in his last three games and four of his last five. He’s showing better patience than ever, laying off breaking pitches like we’ve never seen him, and he’s at long last tapping into his power. After seemingly unremitting struggles ruined his confidence, O’Conner suddenly is afraid of nothing and confident that he can beat whoever he’s up against. This is the player the Rays thought they selected in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft.

At the end of the day, O’Conner still has plenty more work to do. He has to prove that this isn’t a transient flicker of his promise but something that he can truly sustain. But after years and years of struggles, maybe O’Conner has finally found the light at the end of the tunnel. Justin O’Conner is just 21 years old. If he turns it around here, his frustration early in his career will quickly be forgotten and a place in the Rays’ future will be awaiting him. O’Conner has shown us that all the talent that made the Rays excited to draft him is still there. Now let’s see what happens next.