San Bernardino, California —— Connor Justus’ first month in the California League didn’t go quite as expected.
The Los Angeles Angels’ 16th-ranked prospect, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Georgia Tech last summer before being pushed quickly to High-A Inland Empire this year, is slashing just .210/.358/.319/.677 through his first 35 games entering Thursday. Worse yet, the contact-oriented Justus has already whiffed 38 times in just 119 at-bats — not a great ratio for a guy who needs to fill a table-setter role in the lineup and get on base for bigger sluggers to follow.
Seeing as how so many guys come to the Cal League to see a wind- and altitude-inflated offensive boost, it might not be a good sign that the shortstop is early on headed the other way. But Justus—a good-natured, polite native of Cartersville, Georgia with the accent to back it up—isn’t down about himself as he seeks the greater perspective that can come from failure.
“We get caught up in stats, and exit velocities, and errors, and all this stuff, and there are so many stats that are thrown at you, but I see this perspective of having an opportunity to go out and play the game I love,” he told Baseball Census during a pre-game interview late last month in San Bernardino. “That comes first. That’s what really drives me to be the best I can be. It’s been fun to learn from the older guys, and really taking advantage of the opportunity that God has blessed me with. I think that’s the biggest thing in all of this.”
Justus’ calling card is his glove; he’s an exceptional defender with smooth, efficient actions at shortstop and a strong arm that should keep him at that position for much of his career. His intensity rivals that of another whiz-kid defender in the Los Angeles Angels’ organization, David Fletcher, who played with Inland Empire last summer and overcame a slow start at the plate to enjoy a breakout all the way to the Arizona Fall League last offseason before landing in Double-A to start 2017.
And yet just like it was with Fletcher last year, the prevailing knock on Justus has been whether his bat can transition to the professional level. Phenomenal defensive acumen aside, can the Georgia Tech product hit enough to warrant an everyday role at shortstop in the years to come?
“I can’t get torn up over two at-bats,” Justus said, acknowledging his slow start with Inland Empire but keen to look at the bigger picture. “I can’t get torn up over 20 at-bats. I’m going to get 500 over the course of a season. If I get torn up now, what does that say about me trying to lead these other guys? What does it say about me as a player? I have to stay aggressive here. These guys are strike throwers, and you have to match their level of intensity and their demeanor on the mound to have that confidence and swagger about yourself like, yeah, I can play with these guys.”
That’s the other thing about Justus, and it may turn into something of a wild card in his favor: he’s a natural leader who seeks out that responsibility on the field. Maybe it comes from playing shortstop, where by default he’s had to be a field general much of his baseball life, but the infielder wants to lead. That alone should help him maximize his skills on the field, and set him apart regarding his intangibles.
“I really do embrace being a leader, whether that means leading by example or picking up a teammate,” Justus said. “And sometimes it means looking inward. If I’m 0-for-16, how am I handling myself? It doesn’t always mean being that talkative leader, but it means leading by example and doing things the right way. Coming from Georgia Tech, they really set a good example of how a professional is supposed to act. The way I’ve become here, that speaks volumes for the coaching staff there.”
That maturity ought to serve Justus well through a very long season; regardless of personal boom or bust at the plate, this is his first crack at a full-season 140-game slate, where July and August drag on into forever and a newcomer’s body (and mind) will invariably be tested again, and again, and again. As much as he can be, though, it sounds like he’s ready for that part.
“We’ve got 140 of these things, and if I can be as consistent as possible every day throughout the entire season, that’ll make me the best player I can be,” he said. “I just want to be seen as a guy who goes out and takes every advantage of every opportunity. I want to be the guy that always goes out and gives 110% every day. That’s what my job is. I’m a high-energy guy, and I pride myself in being that for the team, in being a guy who can lead by example and help this team win.”
Guys like that tend to keep their nose down to the grind and turn things around in due time, as David Fletcher did last summer on his way to a promotion and a bright future with the Los Angeles Angels.
It sure sounds like Connor Justus may prove himself to be in that mold, too.
In this Connor Justus / Los Angeles Angels feature: