Justin O'Conner finally broke out last year in Class-A Port Charlotte, but was it all just a fluke? Is his swing polished enough right now to make it to the big leagues? The answer... probably won't surprise you, but the reasoning behind it, might.
Allow us to introduce Curt Wilson, a hitting instructor for the Inspiration Academy. He's joining us here at DRaysBay to help shed some light on the hitting mechanics of key Rays players and their potential to improve. We're grateful to have him.
To begin, all of the swings discussed below were from video provided by Curt, which he captured at Home Run Derby events. There’s a bit of a limitation there, of course, as players have been known to sometimes change their swing mechanics during these sort of events. Nevertheless, all of the information in this article is still perfectly valid, and should allow us to discuss exactly what Justin O’Conner needs to improve upon in order to generate more power.
At this stage in his development, Justin O’Conner is plagued with two big questions regarding his hitting. With a build already comparable to that of Wil Myers, who’s exhibited plus-power despite his fairly lanky frame, why hasn't O'Conner developed more power, and why can’t he keep his strikeouts down? The answer to both of these can partially be explained by looking at the very beginning of O’Conner’s swing.
The footage on the left was taken by our own Curt Wilson, hitting coach extraordinaire, on O’Conner at the Florida State Home Run Derby. On the right, Albert Pujols, hitting extraordinaire. We begin by looking at the front foot.
The above is a comparison of the first few moments of both O’Conner’s and Pujols’ swings. The variance begins after what Curt calls "Toe Touch," i.e. the moment where the tips of the toes just touch the ground. Pujols’ style is just a little bit different than O’Conner’s so the animation ends a little after his toe touches the ground, but it’s comparable to O’Conner’s.
Let's see how each player's Toe Touch has set them up for their swing:
Most major league hitters have a stance which Curt describes as "50/50," where their top hand, back shoulder, and back elbow all rest at the same height. O’Conner doesn’t share this stance.
The top of his hands are well above his shoulder blades, as illustrated by that red line. This doesn’t necessarily mean that O’Conner won’t be successful with this stance; in this case, it’s a matter of personal preference. That said, most guys are successful batting how Pujols bats: hands, elbow, and shoulders all at the same height.
What O’Conner also doesn’t have at this point in his career is that heavy muscle that is circled in red. Not all power hitters look like Pujols, of course, but one thing O’Conner seems to be doing is valuing his arms and hands far too much.
The important thing to focus on here is that red line. When Pujols swings, he keeps his hands level for a long period of time (7 frames worth, to be exact,) actually rising his hands above that line for a period of time before dropping down. While his hips begin to twist and his knee begins to cave, Pujols is "cocking back," waiting for the pitch to come, and building up power.
O’Conner, on the other hand, shows none of that cocking back. Watch the gif again and see where his hands start, and where they end up. In the same amount of time as Pujols, his hands have collapsed, coming all the way to the inside of his body and diving towards the ground.
Where Pujols stayed up and behind with his hands, O’Conner’s are down and in.
One advantage of keeping your hands back is that it allows you to adjust to pitches. Curt tells us that your hips will begin to open up before you know what pitch you are getting, there’s nothing a hitter who wants to be successful at the major league level can really do about that. However, your hands don’t need to be the same way.
Pujols’ pitch recognition will be better because he has not fully committed, with his hand, to the pitch—be it a fastball or breaking pitch—like O’Conner has. If Pujols keeps his hands back, he can account for the slower pitch, keep his hands back, twist his hips, and let it run until he can connect with the ball. In the same case, O’Conner cannot adjust his hands mid-swing: it’s fastball or bust. In a Home Run Derby that may not be an issue, but it's likely that his swing seen here is the same process as his standard swing.
This problem with pitch recognition also bleeds over into a problem with power. Pujols is able to keep his hands back while the rest of his body twists towards the ball, and this tension leads to massive amounts of torque. By the end of the 7th frame, Pujols’ muscles are so unbelievably torqued that once he brings his hands forward, his body acts like a slingshot, so that the ball can explode off of his bat. The muscles of his top half are unleashed, thanks to the torque that he’s built through his swing.
Here’s another comparison between O’Conner and DRB-favorite David Ortiz, hitting right-handed.
While Ortiz too keeps his hands back, O’Conner’s hands have found their way towards the front of the plate. All of that potential torque that he could have built up through mechanics dissipates, and it results in him essentially just throwing his hands at the ball. There’s no twisting, there’s no "slingshot mechanics," it’s all just pushing his hands to the ball. Every ounce of bat speed he develops occurs in front of his body, and it’s not enough to launch him into the upper echelon of power.
Let's do the same with another slugger:
Same story, different player. This time it’s Sammy Sosa keeping his arms and hands back. Sosa, like Pujols, seems to have his hands rise over that red line, ensuring that his hips can turn before his hands do.
At this point in his development, it seems unlikely that O’Conner would have success at the big league level with the mechanics he’s exhibited. When you see how far he is from superstars like Pujols or Lance Berkman, who we can see in the picture below, it can get pretty depressing.
This can all seem like a huge buzzkill for a prospect who’s stock so greatly improved this year.
So, is this it for Justin O’Conner? Are we writing a eulogy for a player that’s yet to spend a whole season in AA?
Absolutely, 100% not.
O’Conner is still developing, it is entirely possible that he can learn to not turn his hands around so much, thereby turning his whole swing around. Chad Mottola, the minor league hitting coordinator for the Rays, is known as an outside-the-box thinker when it comes to hitting approaches. Curt says that he has seen him help many a player adjust their stance and swing, and make lots of headway with plenty of minor leaguers.
That said, it’s all a matter of how much Justin O’Conner is willing to buy into the system. If he can Trust the Process™ enough to tweak his swing, there’s plenty of potential here to develop himself into more of a power hitter with a better command of the strike zone. Combine that with his elite arm as a catcher and you’ve got yourself a valuable commodity in a Rays catcher who can actually hit the ball.
Prospects are always a work in progress, and they’ve all got their problems. But the first step to fixing an issue is identifying it. Based on the evidence, it seems clear that Justin O’Conner has an issue with keeping his hands back and building up torque. It’s sapping his power and giving him no time to make adjustments to off-speed pitches.
It’s not a simple fix, but it’s absolutely doable, and as a 22-year-old Double-A catcher in a system known for taking it slow with their prospects, Justin has all the time in the world to get it right.