At the tail end of spring training, Orioles prospect John Rhodes turned to a struggling Connor Norby and wondered what happened. The outfielder had watched Norby since they were drafted together, navigating rookie ball and Low-A Delmarva, and became accustomed with his swing.
But at spring training this year, Rhodes couldn’t get his head around why Norby suddenly looked so uncomfortable at the plate.
“Whatever you changed,” Rhodes told Norby, “go back. Get rid of it, and don’t even think twice about it.”
Last offseason, Norby altered his usual approach. The second baseman, whom the Orioles selected in the second round of the 2021 draft, sought to make a uniform swing, cutting out the variations of a toe tap and occasional leg kick he had during his time at East Carolina. So he ditched the toe tap and committed entirely to a leg kick, thinking it would add more power, too.
Instead, on his last day of spring training, he realized he “had to go back to what worked.” And over the course of this season, Norby’s efforts to reintroduce a toe tap rather than a full leg kick — as well as elevating his hands in his stance — have unlocked the power and potential that wavered when he experimented in the offseason.
The subtle changes have led Norby from High-A Aberdeen to Double-A Bowie and ultimately to a call-up to Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday. That’s where the 22-year-old clobbered the first pitch he saw in his debut at that level for a homer as part of a three-hit game — just more evidence his alterations were correct.
“The biggest things for me leaving spring training were if I felt good in the box and am I seeing the ball?” Norby said. “Those are the two biggest things, and I left spring training with those two thoughts in my head, and we’re here now.”
When Norby thinks back to when he ditched the leg kick, he remembers immediately feeling more comfortable with Aberdeen, with the ability to better time up variable pitch velocities. The hits didn’t immediately follow, though, with Norby posting a .237 average. Part of it was how Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium is a pitcher’s park, resulting in low averages for several other top Orioles prospects, such as Colton Cowser and Coby Mayo.
All three would soon find their way to Bowie, where Norby — Baltimore’s No. 12-ranked prospect, per Baseball America — would experience what he calls a much-needed fresh start. But he still wanted to feel like he belonged.
“I want to be called up for the right reasons,” Norby thought. “I don’t want to get called up because there’s money in me, I want to be called up because I was ready. I had a couple of our hitting guys reach out to me like, ‘You’ll be ready.’”
They were right, with a change in scenery helping Norby’s season to take off. But at the center of his issues was that Norby still had too much pre-swing movement. With Norby’s hands rested on his shoulder before the pitch, it took him time to load his arms before swinging — causing him to be late on some pitches.
So hitting coach Branden Becker suggested another tweak, raising Norby’s hands above his shoulder and instructing him to keep them steady before the pitch.
“I’m just thinking about rotating my torso,” Norby said. “That kind of eliminates any extra movement. It gives me more space and better timing. It allows me to get to the fastball earlier but also stay on the off-speed better, and when I land my foot, I can kind of just go from there. And the toe tap I’ve been doing all year helps with that as well.”
Norby’s season took off, with a .298 average and 17 home runs in 64 games for the Baysox. He felt the most improvement during a series against the Altoona Curve, where he hit three homers in a four-game span. Those are just a small sampling of the 26 long balls he has launched this season, tied for the organizational lead, with the latest in Norfolk on Tuesday.
Norby always had the power. He didn’t need a leg kick to bring it out. And over the course of the season, he’s proven it — to himself and to others — as he climbs the minor league ladder.