Cal notes: 66ers' Justus confident hits will come

Angels' No. 14 prospect has maintained high on-base percentage

Through 65 games, Connor Justus' 41 walks were second in the Cal League behind Stockton's Tyler Ramirez (44). (Tim Cattera/MiLB.com)

By Josh Jackson / MiLB.com | July 3, 2017 10:00 AM ET

SAN BERNARDINO, California -- The second half of the California League season has barely begun, but Connor Justus already knows how he wants to look back on his first full professional campaign.

"I think it's a tale of two halves," the Angels' 14th-ranked prospect said. "Obviously, the second half, you want to hit above .180. But I think that will come with the process, the preparation and everything like that. The second half is already starting to look better and you just have to keep building off the positive results that you're seeing."

The positive results for the 22-year-old shortstop include consistently ranking among the top two or three in walks all season, giving him a .335 on-base percentage despite a .179 average in 58 games before the All-Star break. But Justus, who has five homers, two triples and 11 doubles in 65 games, doesn't profile as a three-true-outcome type, and Inland Empire manager Chad Tracy figures the low average will soon be forgotten.

"I guess there's guys in the big leagues that maybe it's their game, but I don't think that's sustainable. I don't think you can sustain hitting for a low average and ending up having a .350, .360 on-base," said the son of retired Major League manager Jim Tracy. "But I also don't think that Connor Justus is a .180 hitter, so I don't think that's sustainable, either. I do think that eventually he's going to get some more hits. I don't think that a guy that's athletic like he is is going to hit .180."

Justus has struck out 74 times in 65 games, but desperation hasn't been the issue.

"Almost always when you see guys struggling offensively, they'll start expanding the zone because they're trying so hard to get hits and they'll leave the zone to try to get four hits in one at-bat," Tracy said. "Then that on-base percentage will plummet. His has stayed pretty steady all year.

"I think that's the biggest thing -- the strikeouts for him are probably a little bit too high. But if the ball gets in play more, he's going to get a lot more hits. It's just that simple. You can't get a hit if you strike out. But if you get the ball in play more often -- on the ground, on a line, whatever -- balls are going to drop."

Justus agrees with that mentality and sees his walk rate dipping as he makes contact more often. He's fine with that because he never saw himself as the walks-first type. 

"Some of the walks obviously come from swinging and missing [earlier in the count], but as your batting average goes up, the on-base percentage will go up as well," the Georgia Tech product said. "You have to know your role, but as you move up, obviously you have to hit, too. It's not just, you have to get on base; you obviously have to hit, have to produce.

"I want to play for a long time in this game, however that may be. But definitely I see myself taking on a role as an average guy as well as an on-base percentage guy. I want to be the best player I can be. I want to hit above .180."

To get there, he's working with 66ers hitting coach Brian Betancourth on making quality contact.

"We've got to get him to where he gets that pitch to hit and he's not missing it. Then it can really take off," Tracy said. "There's still a lot of time left and 'Bet' and him are working really hard on getting some things tightened up. I think he's put himself in a position where if he does start to take off and have a good month with the bat, you might look up and say, 'Wow, look at how much he got on base' because of what he's done in the first half."

Of course, Justus' defense at shortstop was a major factor in making the Georgia native a fifth-round pick in last year's Draft. His strong arm means if he gets to the ball, he has a pretty good shot at throwing out a runner, and he also happens to have excellent range. In his first 263 total chances, however, he committed 14 errors. 

"Young players, they're going to make some mistakes," Tracy said. "But see what they do when the ball is hit either direction. This guy fields balls deep in the six-hole and he'll field balls behind second base. In terms of range, you're like, 'This guy covers an awful lot of ground!' As he continues to go on and plays in more professional games, he's going to field some of the balls that he maybe missed this year."

Whether or not he misplays a ball, whether or not he gets a hit, his manager likes the way Justus carries himself on the field.

"The thing that I love about him this year, there's a lot of guys that would go through what he's going through and you'd start to see it in their body language, the kind of quit. He just plays hard," Tracy said, "all the time."

In brief

No longer waiting to exhale: Cal League pitchers can finally breathe easy. Top Rockies prospect Brendan Rodgers, who tormented hurlers to the tune of .400/.419/.700, was promoted from Lancaster to Double-A Hartford following the Cal League All-Star Game.

The Futures is ... soon: The All-Star Futures Game is set for July 9 in Miami, and five current Cal Leaguers have been selected. Jon Duplantier (Visalia) and Bryan Reynolds (San Jose) will play for Team USA, while Cuban Yadier Alvarez (Rancho Cucamonga) and Canadians Cal Quantrill and Josh Naylor (both of Lake Elsinore) will suit up for Team World. It's the second consecutive Futures Game selection for Naylor.

Downright Nutty: After taking the first-half North Division title with a 39-31 record, Modesto went 6-2 out of the gate in the second half. 

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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