By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – It’s hard to believe it was only two years ago.
Not much more than 700 days have passed since Jon Harris was headed to the mound for the Missouri State Bears in what would be his final pitching appearance at Hammond Field in Springfield – in front of the largest home crowd in 11 years – before his last collegiate outing on the road, becoming the Toronto Blue Jays first-round draft pick a few days later.
The right-hander’s team was the No. 8 seed in the nation, hosting a regional that included Iowa, Oregon, and Canisius. Harris headed to the hill to open the tournament against the Golden Griffins, and after allowing a leadoff home run to Etobicoke, Ont., native Connor Panas – drafted eight rounds after Harris less than two weeks later by the same organization – he settled in for a three-hit, eight-strikeout, eight-inning outing to lead his squad to victory.
Following a disappointing series loss to Arkansas in the super-regional round, the native of Florissant, Missouri joined the Blue Jays – after also being selected by the club in the 33rd round of the 2012 draft out of high school – and he began his professional career with the short-season affiliate Vancouver Canadians.
With 103 innings already under his belt that year, the righty laboured through his time in the Northwest League, posting a 6.75 ERA over 11 starts and 36 innings, with 21 walks and 32 strikeouts. Harris learned a lot through the process that has since helped him get better as he continues through the minor-league ranks.
“The first year, you go from pitching every Friday to every fifth day,” he said. “So it takes a toll, because your body is not up to what is expected from it. I went in open-minded and did what I needed to do to get through the season and then back to having an actual off-season to get prepared for my first spring training.”
In his second pro season last year, Harris split time between class-A Lansing and class-A Advanced Dunedin, posting a 2.71 ERA between them over 24 starts and 129 2/3 innings, walking 38 and fanning 99 batters. With the success, the 6-foot-4, 175-pound hurler earned a promotion to New Hampshire, breaking camp this year with the Fisher Cats out of spring training.
“The boys in double-A are swinging the bat,” Harris said. “You make mistakes at this level, they’re going to capitalize on it. And I found that out early, and I continue to keep finding it out. But the ultimate goal is just to limit my mistakes, and continue to try and keep the boys in the game to where we can win some more ball games.”
Through 10 starts in the Eastern League this season, the 23-year-old owns a 5.79 ERA over 56 frames, with 17 walks and 41 strikeouts. Harris leads the circuit with 12 home runs allowed, the second-highest number among the three double-A leagues. After three years of college ball in which he allowed only seven total homers, and giving up only four long balls through his first two pro seasons, he understands there are still adjustments to be made.
“It’s one pitch here or there that makes a big difference,” Harris said. “One pitch, a ball will get hit 600 feet, and one pitch, I’ll get away with. But it seems like I never get away with it here. Last year, when I was in Lansing and Dunedin, I got away with a lot, and this year it’s kind of backfired and it’s catching up to me.
“But when you get up to the higher levels, mistakes are going to get made and good hitters are going to capitalize on those. Vince [Horsman, Fisher Cats pitching coach] and I talk about it all the time, it’s just minimizing the mistakes and making better quality pitches.”
Horsman and Harris have worked together on trying to implement the young pitcher’s sinker more through his outings, focusing more on the two-seam fastball than the four-seam version, and believe that when he finds an increased level of comfortability in mixing both pitches, the results will follow.
“Jon is in that transition phase in his pitching, in the sense that he’s going to have to redefine himself from the four-seam fastball type of guy to maybe more of a two-seam, keep the ball down, and get the ball put in play on the ground type of guy,” said Halifax, Nova Scotia-born Horsman. “He’s given up a lot of home runs this year, and it’s just because he’s up in the strike zone.
“His fastball is decent, but he’s got to be the guy who’s got to be able to change speeds really well to make it play. He definitely has to work the bottom part of the zone. Whenever he gets up, it’s never a good thing, which is most guys. But he really does not get away with anything up in the strike zone.”
Harris understands that he can’t pitch the same way he always has, and believes that as long as he can remain focused in his approach – which he admittedly strays from on occasion – his entire repertoire can be valuable for the club.
“I throw the two-seam a lot,” Harris said. “I’ve given up a few base hits on it. I’ve given up my share of hits on my four-seam as well, but it comes down to location. If I can locate a two-seam down and in for a ground ball, I should be able to locate a four-seam down and away and get the right result. It’s a matter of staying disciplined in my delivery and knowing that I’m going to throw the ball where the catcher calls that it needs to be.”
Continually working on the development of his pitches, the right-hander is already excited at the amount of progress he’s made since joining Toronto’s organization, and proud of the work he’s put in since his days in Springfield.
“From how to sequence my pitching, to actually working on the command of all four of my pitches has come a long way,” Harris said. “Because in college, I struggled a little bit with commanding my slider and my changeup in the strike zone. Now, I’m able to command all four pitches, in or around the strike zone, no matter what the count. I’ve come a long way there.
“My changeup’s come a long way too, it’s probably my second or third-best pitch right now. I’ve always had a decent curveball; my slider’s come a long way too. It’s tweaks here and there with finger location, but from college I’ve evolved a lot.”
As Missouri State heads into the Fayetteville regional in the Field of 64 this weekend, Harris is looking forward to seeing the continued evolution of the Bears, and is excited about the progress some of MSU’s graduates have made, with the idea that the program can only grow with his own success and the others who have come from it.
“There are going to be a lot more guys thirsty to want to get to the next level,” Harris said. “Past years, we’ve had quite a few players, Ryan Howard, Brad Ziegler, Shaun Marcum, Ross Detwiler, who played in the big leagues and have represented Missouri State well.
“The past few years with me, [and fellow 2015 draft picks] Matt Hall, Tate [Matheny], Joey [Hawkins], and Dylan Becker getting signed as a free agent, it’s going to continue to bring top talented guys from around the country to Missouri State. I mean, in 2015 we went to super regionals, and this year they won 22 straight in the [Missouri Valley] Conference, and I have the utmost confidence watching them play.
“The pitching staff is coming along their, the offence is doing well with [Jeremy] Eierman and [Jake] Burger…It’s good to see the school represented that way, and to have success. It’s going to bring a lot of talent, guys who want to go to the LSUs or the Vanderbilts, who can come to the smaller D-I school in Missouri State that can hang with the best of them.”
As Harris hangs with the best of the Blue Jays organization in New Hampshire – with the majority of the organization’s top-ranked prospect on the Fisher Cats roster – he is enjoying the competitive environment he shares with his teammates, and the high bar they have set amongst themselves as the season continues.
“It’s great here, the atmosphere is great,” Harris said. “We try not to think about the whole prospect thing. I mean, everyone knows we have seven or eight of the Top 30 prospects in the organization, but our job is still to go out there and compete and try to win ball games. The ultimate goal is to make it to the big leagues, so we just look past all that.
“In some ways, we challenge each other because it’s a matter of, who’s going to be the first one to get to the big leagues? One guy has a good start and you think, I’m going to do better than this guy. Then another guy has a good start and you want to do better than that guy.
”We want to give ourselves the best opportunity for the team to win, and when you’ve got guys like [Conner] Greene who will go out there and go five, six, seven innings a night, and then [Sean Reid-]Foley will go five, six, seven innings a night, and then me and [Shane] Dawson, you’re putting your team in a good position to win a lot of ball games.”