Were it not for The Troubles, left-handed pitcher P.J. Conlon might be a household name among British and Irish sporting aficionados. Instead, Conlon, who has a standard American accent, is quickly rising the ranks of the Mets’ organisation after growing up in California and attending the University of San Diego.
Conlon was born in Belfast to an Irish father and a Scottish mother, but the family emigrated to the U.S. to escape the violence in Northern Ireland. Their son was born in 1993 and they lived on Falls Road for two years before leaving the country. Raised in Southern California, Conlon did not return to the land of his birth until 2009.
The southpaw was drafted in the 13th Round of the 2015 Amateur Draft by New York’s National League side after a stellar campaign at San Diego. Entering the rotation as a freshman, an impressive feat in and of itself, Conlon turned in two excellent years as an underclassman (9-1, 2.16 in 2014 and 7-2, 4.35 a year later) for a top NCAA Division I team. A junior campaign that saw him record a 2.17 ERA and .196 opponents’ batting average earned him his first pro contract with the Mets.
Conlon has quickly proven to be a steal, debuting with a stellar performance at Low-A Brooklyn in 2015, striking out 25 while walking only two in 17 scoreless innings. Had things gone his way, it is likely that the lefty would have returned to New York’s largest borough to face Israel or Brazil in the WBC qualifiers. Instead, after an excellent start to his professional career, Conlon burst on the scene with a breakout 2016 minor league campaign.
After transitioning back to the rotation, Conlon put together an incredible season. The southpaw won 12 of 23 starts with a 1.65 ERA and a 112-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 142 frames. He was also tabbed as a member of the Great Britain national team for the World Baseball Classic qualifying round, though he was unable to compete.
We recently spoke to Conlon as Binghamton’s regular season came to an end and the club prepared for the Eastern League playoffs. For those who prefer audio, it is available on our Soundcloud page (link). Conlon was forthcoming about the challenges of advancing to the minors’ penultimate level and his disappointment of missing out on wearing the Navy-and-Red of GB. He began, though, by describing how he was discovered by Great Britain’s Head Coach, Liam Carroll.
“I actually met [Coach Carroll] in college while I was at the University of San Diego. He came down to San Diego because one of the other coaches on the team [Brad Marcellino] was a coach with me in college.
“I met him them for the first time and we stayed in touch because we were always talking about possibly playing for the team. And then, knowing that the qualifiers were coming up, that was something I was definitely interested in playing in, but…the Mets shut me down towards the end of the year because I hit my innings limit for the year, so that was a bit disappointing.
Despite balancing the expectations and hopes of both the Mets and Great Britain, Conlon finished 2016 on a high note after earning All-Star honours in the South Atlantic League before a promotion to St. Lucie in the Florida State League. His ERA (1.65) was the lowest in all of minor league baseball and he was named the Mets’ Organizational Pitcher of the Year. His success would scupper his national team aspirations, as Conlon’s innings jumped by 33 2/3 from 2015.
“I was in touch with [Team GB] for a while and they told me that if I was able to play or I wanted to, that I would have a spot, so that was really exciting. As I said, I was looking forward to it, but it was one of those things that was out of my control.”
Listed as a Mets’ MiLB Organisational All-Star after the season, the 23-year old was promoted to Double-A Binghamton, where he was 16 months younger than the average player, more significant as a hurler. Conlon’s ascendancy continued this year as he totalled a 3.38 ERA with 108 strikeouts and 38 walks in 136 innings.
The season started off extremely well for Conlon, as he reeled off two shutouts—a rare minor league achievement—among his first nine starts, tossing another one in July. The hurler was named an Eastern League All-Star with a 4.07 ERA in 17 starts and his three shutouts led the minors. In the second half, he transitioned to the bullpen and will likely be considered as a reliever at major league spring training.
“I took the All-Star break to give myself a rest. I had thrown a lot of innings at that point and I felt a little fatigued, so I talked to people in the Mets’ organisation and my coaches and they gave me the okay to take the all-star break off, and then they moved me to the back of the rotation when we came back. I think it has been really beneficial since then as I have performed a lot better recently than when the all-star game was coming up.
The time away from the mound served Conlon well, as he finished with 10 1/3 scoreless innings over seven relief appearances and one start. More impressively, he struck out 12 and walked only one, marks that are far above his usual rates.
“I definitely think I have become a much better pitcher after this season. I had success at the beginning of the year and the middle of the year hit a bump in the road and hit a stretch where I had a couple rough starts, but that’s baseball.”
As Conlon alluded to, 2017 had its ups-and-downs for the 23-year old. After nine starts, Conlon had a 3.30 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP, but was reached for 17 runs in his next 25 2/3 leading into the all-star break. After skipping his All-Star bid, he surrendered only five runs in his final 34 1/3 frames, permitting only a .211 average against him.
“I’ve tried to learn from that and finish strong and I’ve had a good last couple months. In the second half of the season, I’ve been really happy with the way I’ve pitched and it has been a successful year. The team has done well—we’re winning games—and going to the playoffs and so I couldn’t have really asked for much more going into this year.”
This campaign saw Conlon challenged for the first time, whether it was the series of rough starts in the middle of the season or performing multiple roles in a season for the first time since his first year of university. We asked him to reflect on his season and discuss the differences between A-ball and Double-A.
“They say Double-A is the biggest jump in professional baseball, so I was hearing that pretty much the whole offseason, and I was excited to get to experience it for myself first-hand. It definitely is a jump. You notice the talent level—there’s talent at every level—but here they have guys that can swing the bat in the lineup.
“I think the biggest adjustment for me was deeper in the game you notice that these guys have a more advanced approach. Last year, in Full-Season A-ball and High-A, you didn’t really see a lot of guys that would change their approach. They would just stay with the same approach, so you could pitch them the same each time they came up. With these guys up here, I’ve noticed that you have to continue to make adjustments and not always be giving the same looks and not really staying in the same patterns at the lower levels.
These adjustments started before the 2017 season. In an effort to conserve his arm, the Mets relegated Conlon to shorter appearances after drafting him in 2015. A year later, they stuck him back in the rotation and emphasised durability rather than domination, which meant changes to his preparation and execution.
“My first pitching coach in Brooklyn when I first got drafted got me acclimated to the pro life transitioning from college ball to pro ball, so that really helped a lot. In Columbia, Jonathan Hurst was my pitching coach there and he worked with me that whole first spring training and being in Columbia he helped me out a lot. I had a more sporadic, more violent movement toward the plate and we calmed that down. Going into that season in Columbia, that helped me a lot.”
As will come as no surprise to those who have played, Conlon benefitted from his teammates as well as his coaches. Most fans assume that baseball players life a dream life between the job and the salary and, while Conlon was granted a bonus of $110k (£81k/€92k) in the draft, the typical Double-A salary is $1,700 (£1,250/€1,420) per month of the season. As a result, players live together, often with four to six men in a small flat. Conlon is no different.
“Both my roommates this year, they have impressed me: Corey Oswalt is having a great year, and Corey Taylor as well, just living with those guys and going home after the game and talk about certain stuff, so it’s good to have guys like that. Another guy that has been super impressive this year is Chris Flexen—and he’s in the big leagues now, but he was with us for a bit. His preparation going into starts and what he does when he’s out on the mound is really impressive.”
In addition to the trio of moundsmen housemates, Conlon took the field for the Rumble Ponies with another player for Great Britain, Champ Stuart (with a third British teammate, Blake Taylor, two levels below in the Mets’ system). Stuart had an eye-catching performance in the WBC Qualifier, going 7-for-15 with two doubles and a triple, following on from a season that saw him hit .265 with a .755 OPS in the Florida State League before struggling at Double-A.
“When I saw him in spring training, he was just raving about how fun it was. He kept joking with me that ‘Maybe if we’d had you, we would have qualified for the next round!’ He was always jumping on me for that. We don’t really talk about it [now]—it’s just a cool thing.”
This year, Stuart, a centerfielder, led the Eastern League in stolen bases (35) while putting up a .222/.310/.331 line. Conlon’s teammate might be right about Great Britain’s result, as the young and dynamic squad lost a heartbreaker to Israel in the qualifier final after upsetting Brazil. Conlon has not forgotten his roots, however. As a man of three cultures, though, they often manifest in unusual ways.
“I have Irish and Scottish family, we have a tonne of family in both those places, so I identify with both those a lot and I am proud of those roots. At Christmas, we have the poppers and stuff like that and wear the crowns—that’s at Thanksgiving we do that, as well as Christmas—but nothing really too traditional.”
The Rumble Ponies could not deliver an early Thanksgiving treat for the Conlons, however, as they were bounced from the Eastern League Playoffs 3-1 by Trenton. Conlon tossed a scoreless frame in the series as the team continued to pitch him in relief.
If Conlon continues his impressive rise through New York’s system, he would be the first player born in either part of Ireland to play in the majors since Joe Cleary’s disastrous one-third of an inning in 1945 (in which he allowed seven runs). The only Belfast native was Irish McIlveen, last active in 1909.
Conlon has a chance to be far more successful than either and would be a welcome addition to a Great Britain staff in upcoming tournaments. The Navy-and-Red will aim for Olympic and World Baseball Classic qualification in the next few years. In the meantime, British baseball fans can follow Conlon’s bid for the bigs, which could come as soon as next year given his trajectory.
In the meantime, GB supporters and fans of international baseball should stay tuned for our upcoming feature on another up-and-coming Mets and Great Britain hurler, Blake Taylor. Past interviews with GB players include spring training interviews with big leaguers Michael Roth (link) and Jake Esch (link), along with Taylor (link).
Many thanks to Tim Heiman and the Rumble Ponies for arranging our chat with P.J.