Connor Joe Is Ready to Break Out

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Connor Joe has had a turbulent couple of years. In the spring of 2019, he made his big league debut as the Opening Day left fielder for the Giants. Just a week prior, San Francisco had acquired him in a trade with the Reds, who had selected him in the Rule 5 draft just three months before that. His time with the Giants would also prove short-lived: after 11 days and a 1-for-15 start to the season, he was designated for assignment. As a Rule 5 pick, he was returned to his original team, the Dodgers, and spent the rest of the 2019 season in Triple-A, where he posted a 132 wRC+ and a 16.1% walk rate but never got the call to return to the big leagues.

The following year, Joe was expected to compete for a roster spot with the Dodgers, but just as spring training was getting underway, team doctors found a tumor that was later diagnosed as testicular cancer. He underwent chemotherapy treatments and was declared cancer-free later in the summer, but the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic kept him away from baseball for the whole season. He elected free agency in November 2020 and signed a minor league deal with the Rockies later that month.

The 2021 season finally gave Joe an opportunity to shine at the big league level, but it was not without its ups and downs. He started the season in the minors thanks to his lost 2020 and ended the season on the injured list due to a hamstring injury he suffered in early September. Between those endpoints, he struggled enough to get sent down, got hot enough to become the everyday leadoff hitter, and even celebrated his anniversary of being cancer-free by smashing his first career home run. All told, he had 211 plate appearances with a .285/.379/.469 triple slash, eight homers and a 116 wRC+.

Joe, 29, doesn’t exactly have the typical profile of a player confined to first base or a corner outfield spot. He’s far from a hulking slugger, as his near league-average ISO (.186) and exit velocity (88.2 mph) will attest to, yet he’s not without skills that make him an offensive asset. He has displayed a great walk rate all throughout the upper minors and carried it to the big leagues, finishing at 12.3% (87th percentile) last season. That figure places him in the company of some of the best-hitting first basemen in the game: Freddie Freeman, Matt Olson, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The following chart takes a closer look at Joe’s plate discipline, with those All-Stars thrown in as well as the league average, to provide some context for his approach (this link helps explain Attack Zone locations like “heart” and “shadow” if you need a refresher).

2021 Plate Discipline
Player Swing% Swing% (heart) Swing% (shadow) Swing% (chase + waste)
Connor Joe 41.7% 75.0% 45.9% 10.0%
Freddie Freeman 51.0% 85.5% 57.8% 14.1%
Matt Olson 46.9% 79.8% 55.2% 10.8%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 47.3% 83.2% 52.2% 14.8%
League Average 47.2% 73.5% 52.8% 17.3%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Joe has an extra level of patience with his overall swing rate, and that stands out in his ability to lay off those shadow zone pitches, where he’s the only one of the four who swings less than average. Last season, pitches taken in the shadow zone were called strikes 47.8% of the time, yet the league swung at nearly 53% of these pitches. This is clearly a pitcher-friendly area, and the league has a .261 wOBA on shadow pitches as a result. Joe’s patience in this area is all about him waiting around and hunting pitches he can actually damage, because like the league, he struggles in this area, with only a .238 wOBA and an 82.9-mph average exit velocity. Laying off pitches that produce poor results, even if they have a coin-toss chance of being called strikes, is a confident approach, and it makes him a tough out. Check out these four straight takes he had against Logan Webb to draw a walk after starting out 0–2:

Webb is one of the nastiest pitchers in the game; at-bats like that, to start the game no less, are exactly how Joe earned the everyday leadoff spot late in the season. For him, it’s all about knowing his strengths and being able to execute when he does get the pitch he’s looking for, which in his case is usually anything middle-in, where he had a .453 wOBA (league average is .352).

Joe displays a slight uppercut stroke that gives him a launch angle higher than league average, at 14.6 degrees, allowing him to make the most of his modest exit velocity. His hands start low and stay low in a freakishly compact swing that seems built to punish velocity. He did just that in 2021, with a .473 wOBA against fastballs and a .391 wOBA on fastballs thrown 95 mph or harder. This swing is particularly tough on inside fastballs; it’s the one part of the shadow zone where he loves to attack.

Joe’s swing is not without its holes. He struggled with pitches on the outer third of the plate, particularly non-fastballs — the best place within the strike zone to attack him, as he had only a .199 wOBA there. We’re not even talking about pitches out of the strike zone, either; he just struggles to cover the whole plate. This weakness isn’t exactly a mystery, as last season, he saw nearly double the league-average amount of pitches on the outer third. Pitchers know to attack him away (notice where the catchers are set up in the above GIF), but Joe’s patience doesn’t make it easy; he’ll happily walk to first or wait around for something to leak into his nitro zone. In fact, each of his final six homers of the season came on pitches that were supposed to be on the outer corner but ended up leaking over the middle.

So how does Joe fit into the Rockies’ plans this upcoming season? They could sure use a full season of a fastball-mashing, shadow pitch-taking Connor Joe, as they finished 22nd in baseball in walk rate (8.2%) last season and dead last in wRC+ (82), but where he fits defensively has long been a question. Perhaps just as important to what he showed on offense in 2021 is that he began to show that he can be a quality major league outfielder as well. That’s a good thing, too, because the re-signing of C.J. Cron seems to have taken away first base as an option for him. The sample size on Joe’s defense in the corner outfield position is quite small — only 271.1 innings — but he was a +6 in Defensive Runs Saved in that time. Outs Above Average, probably a better metric in small samples, was less sold on his skills, pegging him at slightly below league average at -1. I watched a lot of video of Joe in left field, and while he has moments of poor routes or drifting on balls over his head, he generally looks comfortable tracking flies to his left and right and has shown skill in dealing with the wall.

Aside from small sample stats and my own viewing (which is held back by the limitations of video), The Athletic’s Nick Groke, who watched Joe as much as anyone, was sold on his defense, writing, “[He] proved last season that he can be an excellent defender in left field.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who should be losing at-bats to the bevy of light-hitting corner outfield options that the Rockies have in Raimel Tapia (78 career wRC+), Sam Hilliard (92 wRC+), and Yonathan Daza (62 wRC+). That’s not to say that there aren’t things to like about those players, especially when playing in the extremely spacious Coors Field, but the Rockies need offense, and a full season of Joe in the leadoff spot would make this offense look appreciably different from last season, when Tapia was Colorado’s primary leadoff man.

Corner Outfield Options (ZiPS Projections)
Player BA OBP SLG wRC+ HR BB% K%
Connor Joe .255 .350 .428 98 12 11.6 20.8
Charlie Blackmon .276 .342 .442 97 16 8.0 16.8
Sam Hilliard .226 .293 .445 82 24 8.4 33.5
Raimel Tapia .277 .326 .396 81 7 6.8 16.6
Yonathan Daza .276 .319 .381 76 5 5.5 17.2

ZiPS has a pretty conservative projection for Joe, penciling in regression across the board. That’s understandable given his limited track record, and yet he still looks to be the best hitter of the Rockies’ corner outfield options, not to mention his team-high .350 OBP projection. The introduction of the DH adds a helpful option for spreading more playing time around, with the veteran Blackmon a likely candidate to spend a lot of time in that role, further opening up playing time in right field for someone like Tapia.

Bottom line, I think Joe is an everyday caliber player for the Rockies and deserves that kind of playing time. His strong approach at the plate gives him strengths not found on the rest of the roster; combined with his bat-to-ball skills, he could quickly prove to be the best hitter on the team. Given his career journey, on and off the field, it’s impossible not to root for the guy, and I look forward to watching what could be his coming out party in 2022.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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2 years ago

You know who else had two first names? George Ruth and Henry Aaron. I think it’s a good omen for Mr. Joe.

2 years ago
Reply to  lavarnway

Fun fact, there are only 5 players in MLB history with one-syllable last names: Babe Ruth, Mike Trout, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, and Connor Joe. Please do not fact check this

John Churchmember
2 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

I know you said not to fact check you, but Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, and Jimmie Foxx belong in the conversation, to say nothing of Ty Cobb.

2 years ago
Reply to  John Church

and wade boggs and tony gwynn!

2 years ago
Reply to  lavarnway

Wasn’t it actually George Herman Ruth? That’s three first names.

2 years ago
Reply to  airforce21one

I will settle for 2/3s as good as Babe Ruth

2 years ago
Reply to  lavarnway

Different sport but don’t forget Ricky Bobby