He could get lost in the shuffle a bit in a large group of Orioles prospects that had big seasons at the plate this year. Gunnar Henderson was named Baseball America’s Player of the Year on the farm. Jordan Westburg was the Orioles' Player of the Year. Joey Ortiz had a big second half. Kyle Stowers got to Baltimore. Colton Cowser had a strong finish. Others made their marks.
Infielder Connor Norby is neither a top 100 prospect yet or a first-round draft pick. He doesn’t have the size of so-called traditional sluggers. But no one on the O’s farm hit more than his 29 homers this year. He ended the season hitting one more on the final day to win the O’s farm homer title by two over Westburg.
“I feel like I’ve always had sneaky pop in a sense. I don’t try to hit home runs. Every time I’ve tried to hit a home run, I never do. But I think my home runs came from putting good swings on a pitch,” Norby said in a recent phone interview.
Norby is ranked as the Orioles No. 12 prospect by both Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com. And both outlets grade his hit tool over his power tool, which gets a just below average 45 grade.
But his power this year looked like more than 45.
The 22-year-old O’s second-round pick in 2021 out of East Carolina filled up the stat sheet. Over 121 games at three levels he batted .279/.360/.526/.886 with 23 doubles, four triples, 29 homers, 92 runs, 16 steals and 73 RBIs. On the O’s farm he was second only to Henderson in OPS (250 PA, min.) and fifth in RBIs.
His homer rate got better as he moved up levels:
* Hit 8 in 48 games at high-A Aberdeen, one every 23.2 at-bats.
* Hit 17 in 64 games at Double-A Bowie, one every 14.8 at-bats.
* Hit four in nine games at Triple-A Norfolk, one every 9.8 at-bats.
“I think it’s been two seasons really,” Norby said. “I had some struggles before the All-Star break but at the same time I really wasn’t struggling as bad as I felt like I was and had been making good contact pretty much all year on balls. I just really caught the unlucky bug and that is baseball.
"I was failing, in my head for sure, for the first time since my freshman year at college. I had to figure out how to deal with failure. I just knew I had to continue to put in the work and trust what I was doing. I was doing the right things but wasn’t getting rewarded for them. My college coach always said, ‘If you do the right things, good things will find you.’ They eventually started happening.
“I did tweak some things probably right after the All-Star break which is kind of what led to me taking off in a sense. I saw the power numbers jump drastically. Biggest thing was just believing in myself and my ability.”
Those tweaks helped but Norby believes confidence and mindset was the biggest reason his bat took off.
“I think most of it was mental," he said. "Right when I was starting to feel good again at Aberdeen, I got hit in the face and I got Covid. I was out for about three weeks. That really hurt. So, I was trying to play catchup. Then I hit a really bad slump and you just feel like you are digging yourself a deeper hole each day. But you have to learn from both the good and bad and understand that whatever happened one day, it means nothing for the next day.”
Then a coaching suggestion that he limit his hand movement would help make him quicker to the ball. It made a difference. Rather than bring his hands back and then come forward, he was quieter with his hands, and he eliminated the backward movement to better get to baseballs. The homers soon followed.
“Biggest thing I think is we raised my hands to try and clear up some space in the box. Give me a little bit more timing. I’m so driven on, me and Cowser are very similar in a sense, in that we love to go the other way and that’s where we try to hit the ball every single time. But I was trying so hard to stay inside every single pitch I was causing my bat angle to be too steep. I thought I would be right on pitches, but I was fouling them off. So, we cleaned up my hands and my bat angle to not be so steep. I started to just let my hands go and had better timing on pitches. Pulled more off-speed pitches too and it’s been working.”
Some players may not have been open to making a midseason tweak. What if things got worse, for instance? But Norby was open to the suggestion of Bowie hitting coach Branden Becker and Cody Asche, Baltimore’s upper level hitting coordinator.
“I trust our hitting coaches and coordinators a lot,” he said. “They see things I may not see. The beauty of this game we play is it such a long year. You can try something for a week and see if it works. If it doesn’t you have 20 other weeks. I was open to this. It actually was not comfortable at first and they just told me to give it a week. And it finally started to click. Things started to feel good again. It eventually led me to react to pitches quicker and I am able to react to off-speed better too.”
Norby said he also watched video of Gunnar and Cesar Prieto, who both have the limited hand movement he was looking for.
When he was promoted late in the year to Triple-A, Norby homered on the first pitch he saw with Norfolk and he homered in his first two games. The O’s have bumped some players up a level near the end of a year to give them a sense of what they may face the next season. Norby said that could be big for him for 2023.
“Yeah absolutely. I wanted to get my feet wet up here, especially if this turns out where I start next year. I really surpassed my goals for the year. I didn’t have a ton of them going in, but this is a higher level (at Triple-A) than I ever thought I would get to. At the same time, I am not surprised because I know the work I put in and I trust the process every single day. The Orioles do this a lot. I know Gunnar last year he got called up to Bowie that last week. They are not afraid to move you if they feel like you’re ready. Players enjoy that. No one is stuck in a sense, and they will challenge you.”
Norby challenge himself with his mid-year hitting tweak and it worked. He hit nine homers his last 25 games. Not bad for a player who is 5-foot-10 and 187 pounds. And who has, per some analyst's experts, 45 grade power.
“At the end of the day, rankings and numbers don’t mean a lot to me. But I’m all about proving people wrong. I’ve been proving people wrong my entire life. I was just a Minnesota boy that moved to North Carolina (at age 14) and had to start over. I’ve been viewed by some as undersized. I try to use that to my advantage. OK Dustin Pedroia was undersized and look what he did. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer. I look at guys like him – if they can do it why can’t I?”
What a year Norby had. He's part of a bigger organization on the farm that had a strong year and earned several No. 1 rankings as the best farm system in MLB.
“It’s an extremely exciting time to be part of this organization. I’m blessed to be part of it. The future is extremely bright. I’m around a bunch of great players and great people every day," said Norby.
Kjerstad homers in AFL play: While the Orioles were losing in a rain-shortened game 5-1 to Toronto last night, in a warmer and dryer climate the Arizona Fall League season began Monday.
The O's players on the Scottsdale Scorpions that played last night and there just two of them, had a good night. Outfielder Heston Kjerstad went 3-for-5 with a double, homer and two RBIs. Right-hander Nick Richmond threw two scoreless innings.
Click here for Twitter video of Kjerstad's seventh-inning blast to right.