Last week as the Winter Meetings came to an end, the Rule 5 draft closed things down. The Cincinnati Reds picked up Connor Joe. He had spent the 2018 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Double-A and Triple-A. From 2015-2017 he was in the Pirates organization after Pittsburgh drafted him in the 1st round (39th overall) of the 2014 draft (did not play in 2014). He spent six weeks with the Braves organization late in 2017, too.
The Pirates surprised most by selecting Connor Joe with the 39th overall pick. Most expected him to last until the third round. It wasn’t just where he went, though, it was that he was not announced as a catcher – where he had spent his time in college. The returns weren’t immediate for Pittsburgh as a back injury kept him off of the field for his entire first professional season. In 2015 he missed the first month of the season before joining Low-A West Virginia. He didn’t hit much there, posting a .245 average and slugging just .303. But he did walk 50 times with just 34 strikeouts in 80 games. That led to him falling out of the Baseball America Top 30 prospects list within the Pirates farm system. His defensive time all came at first base that season.
In 2016, now a 23-year-old, Connor Joe was assigned to the Florida State League in Bradenton where the Pirates complex is. He played there the entire season and hit much better. His .277/.351/.392 line looks merely solid on the surface. But the Florida State League is the toughest place to hit in the minor leagues and the league as a whole posted a .677 OPS. His strikeout-to-walk ratio jumped backwards from the previous season, but was still solid with 45 walks and 84 strikeouts in 107 games. He went to the Arizona Fall League following the season – but only played in 15 games. After playing all 96 games on defense at third during the regular season, he played in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League.
The 2017 season saw the Pirates send him to Double-A. Connor Joe once again struggled to hit for an average, posting a .240 mark for Altoona before he was traded to Atlanta in early August. Things got worse in Mississippi with the Braves organization over his final 20 games where he hit just .135. In late September the Dodgers acquired Joe for international slot bonus money.
Just about everything changed in 2018, though. The only thing that remained the same, was his strong plate discipline. The Dodgers sent him back to Double-A to begin his season and from the start of the year he raked. In the first half he hit .304/.425/.554 with 38 walks and 57 strikeouts while hitting 16 doubles, a triple, and 11 home runs. That earned him a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City. His offense slowed down there, but not by much. In 49 games he hit .294/.385/.494 with 10 more doubles, two triples, and six homers. Between the two stops he hit .299/.408/.527 with 46 extra-base hits. In short, it was far and away his best season as a pro. His previous high in OPS was nearly 200 points lower than what he had in 2018.
So what was the difference? He started hitting the ball in the air more. From 2015-2017 his groundball rate was between 44-47%. In the 2018 season that dropped down to 38%. He was always known to be a guy who hit the ball hard, but without getting it in the air enough, the power simply wasn’t able to play. The Dodgers are known to be a team that pushes “getting the ball in the air”. The Reds picked up the Dodgers hitting coach this offseason. He may or may not have had anything to do with making the selection. But he certainly is the kind of hitting coach that should be able to keep Connor Joe on the same track that he was in 2018.
It’s worth noting that both stops in 2018 for Connor Joe were hitter friendly environments. Of course, so is Great American Ballpark. Let’s take a look at the spray chart for the right-handed hitter in 2018 and how his power played to each part of the field.
He showed big power to his pull side in left field. But he also showed off real power to the opposite field, too. And if you’ve ever watched even one series of baseball games at Great American Ballpark, you surely know how well fly balls travel to right and right-center field. This could be a very interesting thing to watch for if Connor Joe makes the roster out of spring training.
As was something that was written about quite a bit above, his plate discipline sticks out. In his career he had 196 walks and 268 strikeouts. That’s a pretty strong strikeout-to-walk ratio. A guy who has some pop and draws walks in Great American Ballpark? That sounds like a decent combination of skills that could play quite well.
It’s the defensive side of the game where Connor Joe may have some issues. No, it’s not so much that he’s a bad fielder. It’s that he’s not a good fielder, either. And that all of the positions he can play are seemingly spoken for. He’s capable of playing first and third base on the infield. Short of an injury, he’s not playing over Joey Votto or Eugenio Suarez. Maybe he can get a start once a week when one of those guys gets a rest.
In the outfield he can play left or right field. Jesse Winker posted a 125 OPS+ last season, and he apparently did so with a bum shoulder that he had fixed – but cost him much of the second half of the season. Scott Shebler posted a 106 OPS+ last year. It’s unlikely that either of these two lose their job early in the season. They are, however, more likely to sit for a tough match up for Connor Joe, though. Both Winker and Schebler are lefties, while Joe is a righty. That could provide him a few additional chances in the outfield that he won’t get on the dirt.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that at least in 2018, he hit right-handed pitching better than left-handed pitching. It was mostly just due to power, though. He hit .314 against lefties with a .406 on-base percentage. But only 2 of his 17 home runs came against lefties in half as many plate appearances. The same story held true in 2017, too. But in 2016 he OPS’d 1.011 against lefties with just a .641 OPS against righties. But back in 2015 he was once again better against right-handed pitching.
With how the roster looks today, it’s tough to see Connor Joe not making the team. They clearly liked what they saw from him enough to select him. And with the ability to play on both the infield and in the outfield, he’s got a lot of versatility to help fill out the bench. Exactly how the team will use him, and where, is up in the air. But there are some options there. And realistically, there may be some upside with his bat, too.