White Sox Sign All-Star Justin O’Conner
The St. Paul Saints are starting to become Catcher U. Three seasons after backstop Vinny DiFazio was selected as the American Association Player of the Year which led to his contract being purchased by the Texas Rangers organization, the Saints had another outstanding performance by a catcher and has led to another calling by a Major League Organization. Justin O’Conner, who was rewarded for an incredible 2018 season by being named a Post-Season All-Star and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, had his contract purchased by the Chicago White Sox organization, becoming the 120th different player in franchise history to receive that honor.
The 26-year-old O’Conner did it both defensively and offensively. On the defensive side he was named Defensive Player of the Year where he threw out 36.0% of would be base stealers (18-50), but more importantly it was the runners he prevented from running at all. The top three teams in the league in stolen bases, who swiped nearly 300 bases, ran just 11 times on O’Conner in 17 games and O’Conner threw them out on seven of the 11 tries. O’Conner was also instrumental in the Saints 3.96 ERA, only the fourth time in franchise history the Saints had a sub 4.00 ERA. He was well-respected by the pitching staff and helped the Saints record 791 strikeouts, the highest total in franchise history by more than 100. In addition, O’Conner led the league in assists (52) and double plays (13) among catchers and was third in caught stealing percentage, among catchers that played at least 50 games. No catcher, who caught at least half his team’s games, was run on less than O’Conners 50 stolen base attempts. O’Conner caught the second most games in the league at 76, only behind Sioux City’s Dylan Kelly, who caught 87.
In his career O’Conner has thrown out an astounding 41.92% of would be base stealers (for context Yadier Molina is the Major League record holder throwing out 40.98% in his career).
On the offensive side O’Conner earned the Post-Season All-Star Award for catchers. He finished the season hitting .250 with 17 home runs and 41 RBI in 82 games. In 292 at bats he has scored 44 runs, smacked 10 doubles, a .292 on base percentage, and a .459 slugging percentage. His 17 home runs were tied for the second most in franchise history among catchers, equaling DiFazio’s 2015 output and trailing only Matt Nokes’ 18 in 1999.
His power began in June when he clubbed two home runs on June 6 at Wichita. In late June he hit safely in 10-straight from June 29-July 9. As the Saints made a push for the playoffs and had their best month of August in franchise history, O’Conner also got hot. He hit .326 with seven home runs and 18 RBI during the month. He homered in back-to-back games twice on August 16 and 17 and again on August 20 and 21. He hit five home runs in the last 12 games of the season. He topped off the month by scoring a run in a career high six straight from August 20-25.
Prior to the 2018 season with the Saints, O’Conner split time between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham in 2017 in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Between the two stops he hit .227 with eight home runs and 44 RBI in 85 games. In 309 at bats he scored 30 runs, smacked 19 doubles, one triple, a .288 on base percentage, and .372 slugging percentage. He threw out 24.4% of base stealers in an off year for O’Conner. O’Conner’s Durham Bulls not only won the International League Championship, but also the Triple-A National Championship 5-3 over the Memphis Redbirds.
O’Conner was a first round draft pick (31st overall) by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010 out of Cowan (IN) High School, becoming the first catcher taken in the first round in Rays history. He spent the entire season in the Rookie Gulf Coast League and hit .211 with three homers and 29 RBI in 48 games. He threw out 43.6% of base stealers, an incredible percentage made even more remarkable by the fact he didn’t start catching until his senior year in high school. The Rays would lose two-games-to-one in the GCL Championship Series to the Phillies.
In 2011 O’Conner spent the entire season with Princeton in the Rookie Appalachian League. He hit .157 with nine home runs and 29 RBI in 48 games and was tops in the league in throwing out base runners at 35.6%.
O’Conner didn’t catch in 2012, instead he was used as a designated hitter in all 58 starts spending the entire season at Low-A Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League. Overall, he hit .223 with five home runs and 29 RBI in 59 games (he entered one game as a pinch hitter). The Renegades claimed the New York-Penn League Championship defeating Tri-City two-games-to-one.
In 2013 O’Conner spent the entire season at Single-A Bowling Green in the Midwest League where he hit .233 with a career high, at the time, in home runs, 14, and a career high RBI, 56. He homered in three straight games from June 9-12. O’Conner threw out an amazing 55.6% of base stealers and once again his team reached the playoffs, but lost two-games-to-none in the quarterfinals to Fort Wayne.
The breakout season for O’Conner came in 2014 when he received numerous accolades. He spent most of the season at High-A Charlotte in the Florida State League and hit .282 with 10 home runs and 44 RBI in 80 games. In 319 at bats he scored 30 runs, smashed a career high 31 doubles, two triples, had a .486 on base percentage and a .486 slugging percentage, for an outstanding .806 OPS. He finished fourth in the Florida State League in doubles, had a 14-game hitting streak from July 3-26, and threw out 50% of base stealers. He was a mid-season All-Star, but more importantly, was chosen to play in the Futures Game on the U.S. squad where he went 1-1. Some of his teammates during the game were Noah Syndergaard, Kris Bryant and Corey Seager. O’Conner was promoted to Double-A Montgomery in the Southern League and hit .263 with two homers and three RBI in 21 games and threw out nine of 12 base runners. Following the season, he was rewarded with an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star, Baseball America High Class-A All-Star, and Post-Season All-Star in the FSL. He played in the prestigious Arizona Fall League where he was selected as a Rising Star and was on the All-Prospect Team.
The 2014 success allowed O’Conner to spend all of 2015 in Montgomery where he hit .231 with nine homers and 53 RBI in 107 games. In 429 at bats he slugged 27 doubles, three triples, a .255 on base percentage, and .371 slugging percentage. He threw out 48.3% of base stealers and led the league among catchers in total chances (865), putouts (759) and assists (91). Perhaps the most astounding statistical anomaly was O’Conner reached on catcher’s interference six times during the season. The Biscuits made the playoffs, but lost three-games-to-one to Chattanooga in the semi-finals.
O’Conner spent most of 2016 injured and played in just 20 games between the Gulf Coast League and Montgomery.
O’Conner was considered the top prep backstop in the 2010 draft. ESPN analyst Peter Gammons described him as a “very athletic catcher,” and called him “one of the fastest-rising players heading into the draft.”
O’Conner is the 130th contract purchased from the Saints, and 120th different player, including eight who had their contract sold twice and Caleb Thielbar who became the first player to have his contract purchased three times. Of the 130 contracts sold eight were sold to international teams and a total of 19 have made it to the ultimate level of baseball following their time with the Saints (Julio DePaula, who played for the Saints in 2011, made it to the Major Leagues in 2014, never pitched in a game, but does not show up on the list below because his contract wasn’t purchased directly from the Saints). O’Conner became the second player from the 2018 team to have his contract purchased joining Josh Allen who had his contract purchased by the New York Mets in June.
By Sean Aronson