Sunday Notes: Jays’ Harris, Irish Conlon, Quirky Records, Otero, more

Jon Harris had a rocky outing a week ago. After allowing just one run over his previous 32 innings — an unearned run, to boot — the Blue Jays pitching prospect was kicked around for eight runs in a loss to South Bend. The reason for his poor performance was as much mental as it was physical.

“I was in a funk,” explained Harris, whom Toronto selected 29th-overall last year out of Missouri State. “I couldn’t really get comfortable — I couldn’t get a rhythm — and I let the game speed up on me a little. I was in my head a lot, worrying about what I was doing wrong instead of just focusing on making my pitches. South Bend is a good hitting team and if you make a mistake they’re going to jump all over it. And they did.”

Harris didn’t allow the implosion to linger. In his next start for the low-A Lansing Lugnuts, the 22-year-old righty allowed just one run over five innings against Dayton. His prior-game hiccup in the rearview, he took the mound with his chin held high.

“I approached the game like, ‘OK, let’s start off on a good foot here,” said Harris. “Throw strike one, boom. Throw strike two, boom.’ There are days where you’re warming up and you have it, and there are days when you’re warming up and you don’t have it. Last night I felt good. We were also putting points on the board, so I didn’t have to press to keep us in the game.”

Tightness in his right hip flexor forced Harris out of the game two batters into the sixth inning. The removal was precautionary. “It was basically a cramp, and we decided to bite it in the bud to make sure I don’t suffer with it later.” He expects to make his next start.

The St. Louis-area native missed time earlier this season, but not because of an injury issue. He returned home for a funeral, which is the type of event that puts a poor pitching performance in perspective.

“It was a tough time for my family,” said Harris. “But it’s part of life. You’re born, you live, you die. It’s just a matter of when you die. So it was definitely a hard thing to go through, but I still had to come back here and perform. You can’t let something get to you, no matter how hard it hurts.”

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Chad Qualls’ claim to fame is that he has more MLB relief wins than any active pitcher. The 37-year-old right-hander has 51 of them, including two this year with the Rockies. When I mentioned the unique distinction, he professed to be unaware.

“I didn’t know I was the active leader,” Qualls told me. “But I do take pride in the amount of games I’ve pitched in (803). Having that number of wins means I’ve been trusted to pitch in close games, so I guess I take pride in that as well. From that perspective, it’s pretty cool to be up there as the leader.”

Qualls claimed he doesn’t take any special pride in having a W next to his name in the boxscore . All he cares about is whether he pitched well enough to give his team a chance. As he put it, “Sometimes we come ahead and I just happen to be the pitcher of record.”

Having an L next to his name is another story.

“Any time I get the loss, I’m upset,” said Qualls. “I feel like I should do my job every time. But as I’ve said to a lot of people, ‘We try to perfect a game that can not be perfected.’ It’s a long season, so losses are going to happen too.”

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Sean O’Sullivan’s claim to fame is that he has more minor league wins than any active pitcher. The 28-year-old right-hander has 86 of them, more than half of which have come at the Triple-A level. When I informed him of the dubious distinction, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“I had no idea,” claimed O’Sullivan. “My first thought on that is to question whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it’s cool to be leading the minor leagues in something, but it also means I’ve been there longer than I want to be.”

O’Sullivan hasn’t been without big league opportunities. He’s appeared in 69 games, 54 as starter, over parts of seven seasons. He has a dozen MLB wins, including one this year with Boston. He’s currently back in Pawtucket, waiting for another shot at bridging the 85-12 gap.

“It would be great if I could do that someday (equal his minor-league win total in the big leagues),” said O’Sullivan. “A long time ago, a guy who played a lot of years told me it’s not as hard to get to the big leagues as it is to stay in the big leagues. He was right. I just need to seize that next opportunity when it comes.”

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PJ Conlon began his professional career by throwing 17 scoreless innings with short-season Brooklyn last year. Two months into the current campaign, the New York Mets pitching prospect is 7-1 with a 1.21 ERA in 10 starts for low-A Columbia. Last night, he allowed an unearned run and just three hits over 10 innings in a no-decision against Hagerstown.

His backstory is every bit as interesting as his performance. Being a 13th-round pick out of the University of San Diego isn’t notable. Having spent the first years of his life in Belfast, Northern Ireland is. The last Irish-born player to appear in a big-league game was Joe Cleary, in 1945.

“My dad is from Ireland and my mom is from Scotland,” Conlon told me earlier this week. “They moved to California as teenagers and met in Orange County toward the end of college. They got married and then moved back to Ireland. I was born there, then we moved to California when I was two.

“I take a lot of pride in being Irish-born. I have a lot of family over there, and I’ve kind of made baseball fans out of them. Interest in baseball is growing in Ireland — they’re trying to develop the game over there — which is pretty cool. I was just talking to the president of Irish baseball, over the internet, and he told me they are about to open a new baseball field in Belfast.”

The southpaw has visited his ancestral home, and he’d like to return and help the game grow.

“I would jump at the opportunity to do that,” said Conlon. “Hopefully I can reach that ultimate goal of making it to the major leagues, and influence more Irish kids to play baseball. That would be awesome.”

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Dan Otero is back to being the pitcher who put up a 2.01 ERA over 105 relief outings for the Athletics between 2013 and 2014. On the heels of an abysmal 2015 campaign, the righty has allowed two earned runs in 22 innings for the Indians. Notably, his ground ball rate has risen from 48.5% to 57.6%.

Returning to his old repertoire — sinker, slider, changeup — has been the reason behind his rejuvenation.

“Going into last season, I decided to start messing around with cutters,” Otero told me. “I wanted to try to get in to lefties more, to keep them off my sinker, and it ended up affecting the release of my sinker. I kind of lost the feel for it. I was getting hit pretty hard, so I decided I needed to scrap the cutter.”

Why would the addition of one pitch cause him to lose feel for another?

“There’s such a fine line with the release point,” explained Otero. “When you’ve thrown a certain pitch a certain way, your whole life… my sinker is natural, and I had to manipulate my hand position to throw a cutter. That wasn’t natural. I took something I was so used to — it was like riding a bike — and I messed with the status quo.

“I decided to go back to not thinking about making the ball move — not manipulating it — and just doing what comes naturally. With a sinker, you want your fingers on top of the ball, whereas with a cutter you want to be around it. That didn’t feel natural, and it was kind of what I was fighting with last year.”

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My April 17 column included a look at Darwin Barney, who at the time had three hits in 14 at bats in a reserve role with the Blue Jays. The 30-year-old infielder had been scuffling in recent seasons, which he takes full accountability for. As he put it, “I’ve struggled and it’s all been on me. I’m just trying to move forward.”

Seven weeks later, Barney is slashing .333/.374/.452 in 99 plate appearances. On Friday, I caught up with the career .642-OPS hitter to see where the sudden surge is coming from.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve felt this way,” admitted Barney, who added that he’s comfortable with his plan and his mechanics. When I asked if he’s surprised by how well he’s hitting, he paused before saying, “No, you can’t be surprised; My mind is in the right place. I expect to contribute.”

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Earlier this week, I wrote about how a change in approach helped DJ LeMahieu enhance his offensive game. Not included in the article was his take on an unrelated subject: The impact growing up in a cold weather state has on development.

“It helped me, because I played basketball in high school,” said LeMahieu, who attended high school in Michigan. “I feel like basketball helped me with baseball quite a bit. With basketball, there was all the conditioning we did, and our games and practices were both very competitive. You don’t get that in baseball, at least not in the same way. Along with helping my athleticism, basketball helped me mentally.”

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This past Tuesday, San Diego’s Christian Bethancourt became the fifth player in MLB history to appear as a pitcher, catcher, infielder, and outfielder in the same game. The previous four — Bert Campaneris, Shane Halter, Scott Sheldon and Cesar Tovar — played all nine positions in their respective games. Along with taking the mound and squatting behind the plate Bethancourt played second base and left field as the Padres were trounced 16-4 by Seattle.

The pitching part of Bethancourt’s feat wasn’t unique. A multitude of position players have toed the rubber in routs, while others have been last resorts in extra-inning affairs. Far rarer are the times where a position player has pitched in a hard-fought nine-inning game.

In 1959, Rocky Colavito led the American League with 42 home runs. The following spring he was infamously traded from Cleveland to Detroit in exchange for Harvey Kuenn, who had hit .353. It is the only time a reigning home run champion has been dealt for a reigning batting champion.

Not as well known is the fact that the slugging outfielder earned a win in relief while finishing up his career with the Yankees. On August 25, 1968, “The Rock” pitched two-and-two-third scoreless innings in a 6-5 win over Detroit. It was the second time he’d taken the mound. Ten years earlier, Colavito threw three scoreless innings for the Indians in a 3-2 loss to the Tigers.

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Jeff Passan, writing at Yahoo Sports, had some not-so-nice things to say about a high school coach in Kansas allowing one of his pitchers to throw 157 pitches in a game.

At ESPN, Robert Sanchez took a look at Dallas Keuchel and pressure.

Alex Speier of The Boston Globe explored a mechanical adjustment Mookie Betts made in the minor leagues. The end result was a home-run hitter.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Adam Jones leads all centerfielders with 151 home runs. Andrew McCutchen ranks second with 132. Mike Trout is third with 129.

Hunter Pence and Troy Tulowitzki each have 201 career home runs and a 120 adjusted OPS.

Per @PassonJim, Brewers batters struck out five or more times in 97 consecutive games prior to striking out just four times on Wednesday. That’s the most in baseball since 1913.

Willie Stargell holds the Pirates club record for most pinch-hit RBI in a season with 16 in 1982. Matt Joyce has 10 pinch-hit RBI so far this season, the most in either league.

Stephen Drew’s pinch-hit inside-the-park home run earlier this week was the second in Washington Nationals franchise history. Brad Fullmer hit one in September 1997 with the Expos.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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fredfotch
6 years ago

Nice job David. I read this every Sunday.