Conner Capel is Capitalizing on His Major League Heritage

In the history of baseball, spanning 143 years, there are over 19,265 men who have played in the Major Leagues, according to On the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats, two players have fathers who excelled enough to join that select fraternity, shortstop Luke Wakamatsu and outfielder Michael “Conner” Capel.

The experience of Capel’s father had a significant impact on his love of baseball and the direction of his professional career.

“He kind of showed me the other side of the game,” said Capel. “The professional side. The work you have, day in and day out, and the IQ you have to have in order to play baseball.”

Though he goes by Conner, he is named after his father, Mike, a former pitcher who came up through the Chicago Cubs organization. The elder Capel was originally drafted by the Phillies in 1980. He went on to the University of Texas at Austin for several years before getting selected by the Cubs in 1983. Over his ten-year professional career, he pitched in 49 Major League games over parts of three seasons for the Cubs, Brewers, and Astros.

By the time Conner was born in 1997, his father had been out of baseball for nearly four years. This did not stop him from imparting the knowledge and wisdom of his experiences to his son.

“It helped me growing up, learning how to handle failure,” says Conner about the lessons imparted by his father.
When it came time to decide between college and the baseball draft, his father and family were there to provide support and advice.

“We thought it was a better career choice,” said Capel about entering the draft. “I’m glad I did what I did. I’ve enjoyed every day of it.”

A fifth round selection by Cleveland in 2016, Capel has moved steadily through the Indians farm system as he develops a strong set of skills and tools. An outfielder by trade, he has played primarily right and center field for the Hillcats and feels comfortable in either spot on the green sward between the foul lines.

“I like playing them all,” he says about which outfield position he prefers. “Wherever they put me I just do my best.”

Of his 38 games this season, he has been in center field for 31, with only three games in left, and four games in right. No matter where he is stationed defensively, he is always prepared.

“The ball comes off the bat a little different [in right field],” says Capel, “but you just have to catch the ball where it is hit.”

Over his brief career of three seasons, he sports a .970 fielding percentage. This season, he has made four errors, all while playing center field for the Hillcats. Some of that may be due to the difficult weather conditions that have plagued the team and the Carolina League in general.

The opening home stand featured freezing cold weather, with game time temperatures at 40°F or lower. A day before the second homestand a tornado ripped a 20-mile path through the city of Lynchburg, and strong winds have been a regular feature at Calvin Falwell Field. Through it all, Capel has persevered.

“I think BP is important, going out there and getting reps to know where in the game the ball is going to go,” he said about adapting the impact weather can have on defensive play.

His other responsibility as a professional is wielding the bat. At 6’1” and 185 lbs., he has a lean, wiry figure. A left-hander, he has a narrow upright stance when he steps into the batter’s box. His feet are near together, and the bat is held almost straight up. This allows him to stride and whip the bat through the strike zone.

Capel continues to develop as a hitter. He struggled some during his first season with the rookie-level Arizona team. Batting .210 over 138 at-bats, he struck out 20 times, with 11 walks, and had no home runs.

In his second season, with the Low-A Lake County Captains, Capel made significant gains. His batting average rose to .246. He punched 22 doubles and smacked 22 home runs, demonstrating the power in that lean, wiry frame.

Hillcats coach Justin Toole has been his hitting coach for the past two seasons, and has watched as he has taken to the Indians development strategies to become a more complete hitter.

“He gets competitive at-bats every single night. Finding a way to get the job done,” said Toole about Capel’s progress at the dish. “He’s a guy who doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. He has a great work ethic and a great makeup.”

With Toole’s help, Capel has developed a set of routines that have put him in a position to serve as Lynchburg’s offensive leader. At the start of the season, he hit in the leadoff position, and he leads the Hillcats with nine stolen bases, though he has been caught seven times. Capel has since slid down in the order to the number three spot, and his hitting has jump-started the Hillcats offense.

After getting one-hit by the Frederick Keys on the road, the team has turned on the offensive spigot and scored nine or more runs five times in the last 13 games, including an 18-1 victory over Salem, and a 12-0 blanking of Potomac.

Capel has led this surge with a team high 23 RBI and 26 runs scored. His competitiveness was showcased in the Hillcats last home game, prior to the start of an eight-game road trip.

On a hot and partly cloudy Sunday afternoon, the Hillcats took the field trying to sweep Northern Division leader Potomac and move to within a half game of the division lead. Lynchburg starter Tanner Tully was tagged for five runs, putting the team down 5-3 going into the bottom of the eighth inning.

Capel was a key player in the team’s offense. Perfect in four trips to the plate, he had one hit, a sharp single to center field, two walks, and a first inning sacrifice fly that brought home the team’s first run of the afternoon. He would cross the plate following the second walk, brought home by a single from teammate Trenton Brooks. That run gave the Hillcats a 6-5 lead that would not be relinquished, and the Hillcats would score three more in the inning to put icing on the comeback cake.

“I’m trying to be more consistent at the plate,” said Capel about his more balanced hitting this season. “Not give up at-bats, or give up and miss my pitch, just battle every single at-bat trying to get on base.”

The Sunday afternoon contest versus Potomac perfectly illustrates the change in his hitting approach. After making some changes to his swing and batting stance when he first joined the Indians system, Capel is maturing into a productive hitter.

“He’s definitely been a shot to our club, putting him in the middle of our lineup,” said coach Toole. “It usually takes guys a month or two to get going. He’s hitting the ball hard, making things happen.”

As Capel’s second full season in the Indians system continues, he will make every effort to lead the Hillcats to victory. His family background, his diligence, and his focus will not allow for anything less.

Photo: Jay Westcott/The News and Advance

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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