In the 5th round of the 2016 MLB Draft, the Angels selected a shortstop from the University of Georgia Tech by the name of Connor Justus(156th overall). Widely proclaimed by scouts and baseball people to be a defense first shortstop who could reach the majors based on his defense alone, many assumed his track record of not hitting much would limit his upside. However, in his junior year at Georgia Tech, he started to show life with his bat, hitting .324/.442/.446, after posting a .657 OPS in 2015 and a .663 OPS in 2014. Justus rose in the draft rankings after the improved 2016 season, high enough to where the Angels felt they had a great pick in the 5th round but maybe not necessarily high enough to garner more attention. Scouts, by nature, were a tad skeptical about the improvements and wanted to see more of a track record. The Angels were happy to see Justus hit .344/.465/.430 across 114 plate appearance at Orem(Rookie Ball) after being drafted and hold his own at Burlington(Low A Ball), hitting .230/.345/.309. 2016 was an all around success for Justus but was it sustainable or was it a mirage?
There’s more to the story behind that success. These improvements weren’t some fluke: before his junior season at Georgia Tech, Justus underwent a complete overhaul of his swing and approach at the plate. I went in depth about the upbringing of the fly ball generation, which includes players such as Josh Donaldson, which has started to preach hitting hard balls in the air and utilizing such tools as launch angle and exit velocity. Low and behold, Connor Justus is a member of this new generation. I caught up Connor, the starting Inland Empire 66ers shortstop, before the game Tuesday night to discuss the swing changes he made prior to becoming a member of the Angels organization.
Brent Maguire: When did you first discover launch angles and what they were about?
Connor Justus: I met with a guy named Jay Hood and right before I went to the Cape Cod year before my junior year(at Georgia Tech), so it was about 2 and a half years ago. What we talked about was how much we data we had and why wouldn’t we want to utilize that? Why would we not try to put the ball in the air with a certain exit velocity and a certain launch angle? Why would you not try to practice that and hit the bottom part of the ball whether it’s your tee work or flips or even BP? Really, I just worked on that the past year and a half to 2 years to try to get the optimal launch angle through the majority of my swings.
Brent Maguire: So what you’re saying is you’re actively trying to hit the ball in the air?
Connor Justus: Absolutely. It’s crazy to think about because we have been taught so much that we should put the ball on the ground because we have a better shot. If you look all these stats that are out there, when you start doing the data crunching, it’s actually the opposite. So why would you not try to hit the ball in the air with a certain angle? I mean, that’s damage and that’s what these big league guys have been taught and obviously you try to emulate that and you see what their success is.
Brent Maguire: Are there any potential downsides to working on your launch angle?
Connor Justus: That all goes away if you stick to your certain approach. You just do it in the game. In practice, in batting practice, on the tee and on front flips, stuff you’re working on throughout the day, there’s minor adjustments that can be made. That’s the name of this game. The faster you can make these adjustments, the better you are going to be. It’s not tweaking too much stuff but it is focusing on what you’re doing it and having a plan for why you are doing it.
Brent Maguire: Do you watch videos on any of these guys like Josh Donaldson, Justin Turner, etc.?
Connor Justus: I try to not look at too much video throughout the season because obviously I have laid the groundwork for my swing and I know what works for me. I know my swing well enough to know that when I practice these things and when I’m doing these things, I have little drills that naturally create the launch angle that I want instead of looking so far into it and doing all the number crunching during the season.
Brent Maguire: Is there a certain part of your swing that you’re more focused on? Josh Donaldson, for example, doesn’t think about his hands at all? Do you focus on one thing or is it a collective evaluation of your swing?
Connor Justus: I try to get into a nice early slot as far as me creating a valley with my spine and things like that. I’m standing more up tall. When I start, I go into my valley then I get into my swing. With that, it kind of makes me not think about my hands. I don’t think about them that much. I think more about my shoulder plane and things like that, which is exactly what Donaldson is talking about. It’s funny that you hear all these things but once you start to understand it and wrap your head around it, that’s when it starts to get put into play. Obviously, in a game you don’t think about this and you let all the work pay off. Once you have that confidence going into it, you’ll be able to do those things in the game.
Brent Maguire: Are these changes paying dividends already or is it more of a wait and see approach?
Connor Justus: You’re just trying to stay as consistent as possible. Right now, it’s hard to tell. You’re 4 games and 15 at bats into the season, it’s early. You just try to stay with your approach and stay with all that work that you’ve put into this. Just have that confidence going into the season that you’ll end up where you’re supposed to end up.
Brent Maguire: Back to launch angle, what exactly was it that you fixed to make it better?
Connor Justus: Really, it was going into my junior season(Georgia Tech). I worked really hard in the offseason to work on driving the ball hard with back spin and getting under the ball through shoulder plane and tilt that you create naturally through your swing. During my freshman and sophomore years of college and growing up, I was taught to be very steep with my hands and to keep my hands up the middle, hitting a line drive up the middle. Yeah, you want to do the exact same thing but now we’re talking about hitting a home run to center field instead of a ground ball or line drive to center field. It’s the same concept basically as far as keeping everything square but it’s just a different way of looking at it.
Brent Maguire: Do you feel like you’re a rare breed of this type of hitter or does it seem like it’s becoming more popular?
Connor Justus: No. I’ve actually been talking to some of the guys like Jared Walsh(66ers first baseman/DH), he’s a great one to talk to. There’s a bunch of guys who are buying into this thing. It doesn’t work for everybody, obviously. Not everybody is a cookie cutter. One set swing doesn’t just work for everybody. But I have dramatically noticed the increases in my swing and the way I go about my business has completely changed since I started this. I wouldn’t be where I am today or the player I am today without the work I put in and the focus I put on this. Does it work for me? Yes. Does it work for everybody? Who knows.