Photo Credit: Kyle Castle, Lansing Lugnuts
There were times last season when Jon Harris probably wished he could escape to a quiet place, crack open a box of LEGO and build one of his beloved Star Wars creations.
Harris, 22, has been a LEGO and Star Wars devotee since he was nine years old. Back home in St. Louis, he has a room full of Star Wars-themed projects.
“It’s a fun hobby,” he says. “It gets me out of my world. It takes me out of baseball. I like to play golf, but I love building LEGOs more, when I have time to, that is.”
He certainly had no time last year. Two days after his Missouri State team lost in the NCAA Super Regionals, the Blue Jays made the lanky right-hander their top pick in the amateur draft. A few days later, he signed for a bonus of just under $2-million. Then he was off to Florida for a physical and orientation, and roughly two weeks later, he made his professional debut with the Jays’ short-season team in Vancouver.
He did not pitch well.
“I was physically and emotionally drained because I had just finished my career at Missouri State, then jumped right into the draft, then into my pro career,” Harris says on the phone from his current clubhouse in Lansing, Michigan. “It kind of took a toll on me, physically and mentally, just trying to wrap my head around everything that was going on. I just had to roll with it and do the best that I could.”
His Vancouver record was 0-5 with a 6.75 ERA in 12 games covering 36 innings. After the season, the Jays put his delivery through an autumn retrofit, which resumed in spring training.
This year, with the full-season, low-A team in Lansing, his ERA is 2.43 in eight starts. In one stretch, he worked 32 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.
The retrofit saw the Jays move Harris from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side. They also changed the way he used his hands in his windup.
“You can do a lot with your hands,” says Sal Fasano, the Blue Jays’ minor-league pitching co-ordinator.
He was not talking about LEGO.
Sal Fasano works with pitchers during a stop in Lansing last summer. Photo credit: John Lott
A top draft pick always arrives rich, confident and flush with a history of success. Often he finds the transition to the pro ranks a harsh awakening. If he’s a pitcher, he soon finds coaches nitpicking at the delivery that made him an amateur star. Suddenly he discovers how little he knows about pitching.
Harris, however, has proven himself a quick learner.
“We made some adjustments in instructional league (last fall), and he’s really stuck with them,” Fasano says. “I’m really proud of how he’s performed, and his work ethic. He’s been doing great. I’m happy.”
So was Harris, especially after two consecutive outings in which he struck out 11 and walked one. In his most recent start, the wheels fell off – seven runs allowed in 4.1 innings – but Fasano said he is unworried. “Everybody has a speed bump once in a while,” he says.
About those adjustments. In college, Harris had always pitched from the first-base side of the rubber. Why switch to the other side?
Fasano: “Sometimes what happens, when you’re pitching from the extreme first-base side, it really allows the hitter to see the ball. He was a little bit rotational when he took the ball out of his glove so the hitters could see it. So this was just a way that maybe we could add a little deception to his game. It forces you to stay disciplined with your delivery from the third-base side.”
Harris: “It helped me get more of a downhill plane and more deception. A right-handed batter sees the ball coming from behind him instead of the first-base side of the rubber. It made me look taller on the mound.”
That means taller than his actual height of 6-foot-4, which is pretty imposing to begin with.
Then Fasano and company asked Harris to start his windup by lifting his hands above his head. In college, he started with his hands together, motionless, at chest level.
Fasano: “I have trouble with people who have dormant hands. If their hands stay still, it’s hard to generate any type of momentum, any type of velocity. We talk about hand speed a lot. People talk about good arm speed, but a lot of times it’s hard for guys to generate that when they go from completely still to full speed. So if we get a little bit of movement with the hands, it makes the hand break a little bit cleaner, it’s easier to create an arm swing or a drape, and you can get on top of the ball and start generating a little bit more arm speed.”
Harris: “It helped me get a better rhythm going. I was more fluid and it helped me have a more repeatable delivery.”
That process started last fall. In spring training, Harris was lifting his hands directly over his head. Since then, he has begun to swing them farther back, behind his head, which helps accelerate his arm speed, Fasano says.
In his first five starts for Lansing, Harris walked 10 and struck out 12. Then came two starts in which he totaled two walks and 22 strikeouts.
“Honestly, I have zero clue,” Harris says. “It was just one of those things where everything starts clicking. The first few games I was piling up the walks but not the strikeouts. Then all of a sudden, I was getting ahead of batters more and throwing more strikes, getting a lot of swings and misses.”
Fasano has a clue. Yes, the mechanical changes were starting to mesh, but as Harris’s rhythm improved, so did his third pitch.
“One thing that Jon Harris has is a really good ability to spin a ball,” Fasano says. “He has a tremendous curveball. With just his fastball and curveball, he’s been great, but then his slider started to get better and better because his timing is getting better and better. He’s getting on top of the ball, getting into his arm slot earlier. The slider started to improve, so now he’s got a legitimate weapon against a righty.”
Only one item in the Harris LEGO collection lacks the Star Wars imprimatur. It’s a space shuttle, the first project he worked on with his dad. LEGO came first, then Harris started watching Star Wars movies, and the two passions converged.
“I always had a big imagination,” he says.
On average, he tackled five LEGO Star Wars projects a year. But his pursuit was not solitary.
“That’s one of the things my dad and I enjoy doing together,” he says. “I’d be putting one together and he’d be sitting at the table across from me putting another one together. It was one of those father-son moments, something you can do outside of baseball and build that father-son bond.”
The bond also extended to baseball. Growing up, Harris studied Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Roger Clemens.
“And every time I’d pitch, my dad would always say, ‘What would Greg Maddux do? Watching Roger Clemens, what would he do?’ No one can be those guys, but you can always learn. And growing up, that’s what I learned – take a little bit here, a little bit there and implement it into becoming the pitcher that I am.”
Fasano says Harris, like most young prospects, is still searching for his mound identity. Harris agrees. He has added almost 50 pounds since he left high school, and now weighs about 200 pounds. He expects to add more weight and strength.
And more points to his pitching IQ.
“One thing we like about him is he’s coachable,” Fasano says. “He’s willing to take the criticism and he doesn’t get too personal with it. He knows we’re here to help him. So he’s taken to everything that everybody says.
“He’s still trying to create his own identity. I think once we get past this mechanics phase, over the next couple years he’ll start to develop his own style, and then you’ll see him blossom and you’ll see what this guy can really do.”
This is a process that every prospect goes through. For most, it stalls at some point. The Blue Jays, however, believe Jon Harris could someday shine on the biggest stage of all, in a different sort of star wars.