ALTOONA, Pa. – A trip to the disabled list with a dislocated middle finger put a pause on Connor Joe’s 2017 campaign; however, after slashing .161/.280/.210 in 20 games, the month of June hadn’t necessarily gone exactly as planned for Joe anyways. That hasn’t stopped the Pirates’ 29th ranked prospect from remaining positive and taking pride in his defensive work, while continuing to pursue excellence at the plate even through this tough stretch.
Joe started the season slow at the plate, but he came back to hit extremely well for about 1 1/2 months, posting a .311 average and .889 OPS between April 18th and June 1st. Even with the tough results at the plate lately, Joe maintains that his swing feels good, and he continues to improve his plate disciple and game planning.
Joe said that he hasn’t made any adjustments with his swing lately to try to break out of the slump. “My swing feels good lately, including my approach and picking up pitches.”
Joe went on to say that his struggle lately stems from honing in on and being selective with pitches that he can do damage to.
“Ultimately, I need to keep it simple,” Joe said. “Hitting is tough enough. I just need to keep it simple.”
Fortunately for Connor Joe, he continues to pass the eye test at the plate. It just looks like he hasn’t quite gotten the results he has wanted. He had a 24.5% line drive rate in June, a slight tick higher than the 23.5% rate that he has this season as a whole. His strikeout rate is slightly up (17.33%) this month compared to his season average (13.33%), but that’s not an astronomical number that makes it seem like something is wrong.
Overall, Joe’s numbers this season show progression from his past two professional seasons. His strikeout rate is down 6% this season, he’s walking more often, and his isolated power has increased. Combined with the fact that his BABIP is well short of average (.282 compared to .337 last season for Joe), there is reason to believe that he will break out of his slump sooner rather than later.
“It’s only been the first half, so we have a lot of season left,” Joe said. “Lately, I haven’t been able to contribute offensively like I probably would like, but I don’t think it’s one particular thing that has gotten me off my plan. It’s baseball, though. It happens. If I’m not contributing at the plate, I want to be able to contribute in the field in any way possible.”
And contribute from the field is something that Joe has excelled at this season. Without much prior knowledge of Joe’s past defensive positions, you’d think he has played right field or first base his entire career. Contrarily, Joe hasn’t played any outfield professionally before this season, and last played the position regularly in college. He was primarily a catcher his junior season at the University of San Diego before being drafted, played first base two years ago in West Virginia, then moved exclusively to third base last season in Bradenton.
This year, Joe has played the majority of the time in right field, with some time at first base, as well. Curve manager Michael Ryan has said that he would be comfortable playing Joe at any of the corner positions.
“I think it makes him a very valuable player,” Ryan said. “He could probably play all four corners well. I’ve been very impressed with his outfield play, he’s picked up first base extremely well, and he’s been a very good third baseman in the past. He has that versatility, and he’s the type of guy that if you ask him to do something, he will try to perfect it. It’s special.”
It’s really easy to notice Joe’s athleticism when he is in the field, as he is quick, agile, and has a great first step. The way he plays the field is something that takes most players a myriad of season and a ton of reps to replicate. He is locked in for every pitch, and he understands that his contributions must come from the playing field if and when his bat is lacking, like this past month.
“It’s important to play a full nine innings and not take pitches off,” Joe said. “It’s not every day that you’re going to get three or four hits and drive in five runs, but you can help the team in other ways. It’s something I’ve taken pride in working on my defense every day. I’m spending a lot of time and putting a lot of effort into getting better in the field.”
Joe said that he has “bought in” to the Pirates’ philosophy of positional flexibility. He spends time at multiple positions during the work day, striving to maximize his abilities at every position. And, Joe has thrived at each position he has been put at this year. He has only made one error all season. He has a good first step in the outfield, and his reaction time to line drives and hard hit ground balls – to either side – has been superb. Through and through, I would rate Joe as an average to above average defender at either position.
“I don’t want to say I’m the best defensively player by any means, but I feel like if I maximize my abilities, I’ll be able to make plays, help the team, and get in the dugout to hit,” Joe said. “That’s where we want to be – hitting. It’s something I’ve done my whole life since college – bouncing around positions. It’s something I like and something I bought into lately.”
As for his June hitting slump, and this most recent trip to the disabled list, Joe has a good head on his shoulders. He understands the length of a baseball season and how you really need to keep striving for an end goal rather than focusing on each and every little streak you go on.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “I feel like if you get too high or too low, you’ll be exhausted by the end of the year. I want to stay as even keel as possible, work hard, and contribute in other ways when I’m not playing my best.”
It is unknown how long he will be on the disabled list, but I would still expect Joe to finish out the 2017 campaign in Altoona. With Jordan Luplow getting a quick promotion to Triple-A, and Edwin Espinal seemingly on deck considering his minor league free agency after this season, there is still room around the diamond for Joe to get regular playing time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play a little more at third base, either. If all would go right, I wouldn’t expect to see Joe in Pittsburgh before the 2019 season, unless he is a September call-up next year.