DUNEDIN, Fla. — After a sigh, Jon Harris admits that his first pro season had "a steep learning curve.”
The numbers that the right-hander posted last year with the Vancouver Canadians weren’t quite honour-roll material: Five losses without a win, a 6.75 ERA. Digging a little deeper the stats would seem no more encouraging: In 36 innings he gave up 48 hits and 21 walks.
That’s not to say the Blue Jays regarded him as a disappointment. Nor is to say that in his 12 appearances in low-A he didn’t show more than flashes of the talent that prompted the Jays to draft him in the first round, 29th overall, last June. And at season’s end MLB.com ranked him as the top prospect in the Jays’ organization. (Not entirely coincidentally, MLB.com’s Jim Callis ranked Harris the fourth college pitcher overall in the available talent pool prior to last year’s draft and rated his floor as being higher than the three collegiate hurlers rated above him.)
It’s a matter of projection: At six-foot-four and a reed-thin 180 pounds, the 22-year-old Harris figures to gain velocity on his fastball when he fills out. That said, it was far from a seamless transition to the minor leagues from Missouri State University, where he went 8-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 15 starts in his junior season.
"I just struggled with consistency," he says. "I’d have one good start and then one rough one. And then another good start and another bad one. I found out you’re just not going to have it every time out there. In high school I could just get by on my fastball. In college there’d be a few guys who could hit and I had to use my tools. But after I signed and got out there in Vancouver, I realized that these guys are ballplayers. They all could hit. The real challenge is figuring out how to pitch to players at this level when you don’t have your best stuff. That’s really learning to pitch.”
Harris says the learning process isn’t simply a matter of physical mechanics or game management. "The coaches in the organization look at you and see what you have," he says. "Then they help us find ourselves. They don’t want us to be the next Greg Maddux or the next Nolan Ryan. They didn’t get to be Greg Maddux or Nolan Ryan trying to be the next someone else. They want me to be Jon Harris. It’s up to me to find my own identity and making that work in the best way possible for us to be successful and get to the big-league level.”
Hard to imagine it was intended, but the Blue Jays’ development philosophy is a piece with Aristotle’s observation that self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom.
Harris says he’s "pretty close" to figuring out who he is as a pitcher. He might come off as soft-spoken and unprepossessing, but he also gives you the impression that he’s figured out who he is away from the ballpark early on. And was wise beyond his years.
The Jays drafted Harris out of Hazelwood High School in suburban St. Louis in the 33rd round, 1,015th overall in 2012. The Jays weren’t the first team to call Harris that day. "Before the Jays picked me I got a call from the Cardinals," Harris remembers. "They had my number not my father’s so I handed him the phone. He talked to them and I asked him what they said. He told me that they wanted to know if I’d sign for $100,000.”
The draw of playing someday for his hometown team didn’t sway Harris. “I told my father, ‘Dad, I’m going to college,’" he says. “I knew that I’d be shell-shocked if I had to go out and learn to live on my own and play ball right out of high school. I had made a lot of people the promise that I’d go to school and get a degree and I was going to follow through on it. It’s easy for a kid to get swayed by the money and think their future is in baseball but a lot of them that take the bonus end up out of the game and with nothing to show for it pretty fast.”
It proved a precociously astute reading of the situation by the teenage Harris. He signed with the Jays for a bonus of just under $2 million last summer. The way he sees it, signing in 2012 wouldn’t have been any benefit to him at all. "If I had signed out of high school [with the Jays] I’d have been in about the same place anyway," he says. "I would have been in Vancouver, maybe even [minor league affiliate] Bluefield. Who knows? The only thing I know for certain is that I improved in college and had a great experience and grew as a person.”
In college, Harris majored in elementary education before switching over to geography with a minor in psychology. Despite the switch, his long-term focus remained the same: He wanted to become a teacher. "I’m an only child so I spent most of my time around adults but I love kids," Harris says. "I’m also the oldest kid in my extended family. My one cousin, the next oldest, is about to turn 16 and just started in high school tryouts. And he’s an only kid like me, so he’s like the brother I never had. I was working with him this winter. Working with him was like working with the kids who came to baseball camps when I was in high school and college. It was a great experience interacting with them … why not be a teacher and coach them as well?”
While baseball is going to be a priority in Harris’s immediate future he still sees himself teaching someday. Though he signed with the Blue Jays after his junior year, a year and a course or two away from graduation, Harris wants to figure out a way to finish his degree. "Online courses are going to be available for some of my credits but the real challenge is going to be the hands-on stuff that you have to be in the classroom for," he says. "Some things you just have to show up, work through and learn.”
Harris might be in Lansing or high-A Dunedin this summer. Maybe he’ll start in one and work his way up to the next level in mid-season. No one in the organization has given Harris any indication of where he’ll likely land and he’s not about to guess. Wherever he goes—and whatever he does—he’ll work through and learn, about himself, about the game.