Connor Joe is not just a heartwarming story of a cancer survivor making it back to the Majors, he’s a genuine Major Leaguer with a career .268/.360/.414 slash line, a legitimately solid hitter and beloved ballplayer who immediately became a fan favorite in Denver. But after Joe hit an excellent .285/.379/.469 across 211 plate appearances in 2021, he’s hit a much weaker .268/.359/.394 so far this season. The batting average and on-base-percentage remain solid, but Joe is slugging under .400, not at all what you expect from a corner bat (through June 20th). Is this lesser power output an aberration? Is it a symptom? Let’s dive into it.
Who Connor Joe Is
Before we understand his struggles, it’s important to understand Joe’s profile as a hitter. To diagnose his issues, his strengths and weaknesses have to be clear, as well as all the components that have to be working in order for him to be a productive hitter.
- Plate discipline
Joe is a patient hitter by nature. As a ballplayer who came up in the Dodgers organization, plate discipline was an important area of focus. Joe carried strong walk rates through the Minor Leagues, and his career walk rate in the big leagues is a strong 11.6%, well ahead of MLB average (which typically settles around 8-9%). On top of his ability to work the count and draw free passes, Joe doesn’t strike out much, especially impressive when you consider how many pitches he sees. Joe’s MLB strikeout rate is 19.9%, again solidly better than average. This is a fantastic foundation from which to build a hitter: a guy who walks, sees a lot of pitches and whiffs less than usual.
- Lifting & pulling the ball
As you will easily notice if you watch him at the plate, Joe’s swing has a certain amount of uppercut to it, as his bat path is best suited for hooking and lifting pitches down in the zone. That getting the ball in the air and keeping it off the ground is a hugely important piece of the puzzle for Joe is no surprise, as his development in MiLB (2015-19) coincided with the peak of the “launch angle revolution”, as some people have called it. To go along with that, the best way to maximize your power is to pull the ball in the air, and Joe did it consistently through the Minor Leagues, routinely pulling roughly half of all batted balls.
- Don’t swing at pitches down and away
This is key for Connor Joe. Because of how his swing works, he has a bit of a hole on pitches down and away, and he struggles to hit them hard. His average exit velocities against pitches down and away from him have been in the mid 70s as a big leaguer, which is bad. He can square up pitches up and away just fine and hit them the other way, but down and away? Not happening. Joe is aware of this, obviously, and uses his plate discipline and pitch recognition to frequently spit on breaking balls off the plate, as well as fastballs in that spot.
- Hammer pitches on the inner third, fastballs in particular
As the other half of that hole down and away, Joe’s hot zone is like a lefty’s: down and in. His swing is designed to take those pitches and hook them, and a lot of that damage comes on fastballs. In his excellent 2021, Joe mashed heaters, hitting .363 and slugging .608. Six of his eight homers came on fastballs, and look at the location of those home runs:
Those four components (plate discipline/vision, pull & lift, spit on pitches away, smoke pitches in) are the key for Connor Joe’s success. If he’s faltering (relatively so, as he remains about a league average hitter), then one of those must be out of whack, causing some movement in the house of cards. Which one is it?
I can already tell you which one it’s not: the strikeout and walk rates. Through June 20th, Joe’s K rate was 19.6%, a whole 0.2% higher than 2021. His walk rate is 11.4%, lower than last season’s 12.3% mark but by an insignificant amount. So that’s not it. It’s also not that he’s swinging too much at pitches down and away, as his rate remains virtually unchanged. In fact, it’s even lower this season. There are two problems here, and they’re somewhat related. Let’s see why.
Let’s start with the groundballs. As you recall, pulling & lifting is a central part of Joe’s success. The pulling part remains mostly similar, but the groundballs have been a totally different issue.
Look at that spike in groundball rate. After being terrific last season at keeping the ball off the ground, Joe has reverted to being just average this season, and his flyball rate has taken a significant hit. The less you put the ball in the air, the harder it is to do damage, and this is one of the things that are hurting the him. But it’s not the only one, and I’d say it’s not even the most alarming problem he’s having this season.
He’s Getting Beat on Fastballs In
Remember that chart that showed the six homers Joe hit on fastballs last season, and how they were all down and/or down and in? He owned fastballs on the inner third last season. Check this out: when opponents threw 2021 Connor Joe a fastball in (both over the plate and slightly off the plate!), he hit a whopping .484 and slugged .806, with a weighted on-base average of .537, and his expected stats were excellent as well, so it wasn’t just random batted ball luck. Those are silly numbers, by the way. He saw 66 such pitches and swung and missed just twice. Twice! Joe generated +9.9 of Run Value with those fastballs on the inner third out of his +16 total. You read that right: well over half of his Run Value came in 13% of all pitches he saw.
This season, it’s gone exactly the other way. When seeing a fastball on the inner third, Joe is hitting .250 and slugging .396 for a miserable -4.2 Run Value, a far cry from his 2021 dominance. His average exit velocity on those pitches has dropped from 88.1 MPH to a terrible 81.4 MPH, and his average launch angle has dropped from 11.4º to 9.5º. Whereas a year ago a fastball inside against Connor Joe meant bad results for the hurler, this season it’s meant success. Pitchers are working in on his hands, jamming him and harming his quality of contact, to say nothing of the hole in his swing up and in they’re exploiting with impunity. As a result of that, his average exit velo this season is 84.2 MPH, which is a dreadful 3rd percentile across qualified batters and around the likes of Víctor Robles, Nicky López, Austin Hedges, Tyler Wade, etc. If you noticed, all those ballplayers have one thing in common that Joe does not: they are plus defensive contributors. They may not hit for power, but they provide defensive value at premium positions to make the weaker bat worth it.
Connor Joe does not have that luxury. He’s played primarily left field and first base this season, neither particularly well, and he’s also not an impactful baserunner. Realistically, he’s a 40 grade fielder at best, and his avenue towards being a productive Major Leaguer lies exclusively in his bat. While he has the on-base skills to be just okay even with his power outage (Joe’s .268/.359/.394 line has been good enough for a 103 wRC+, slightly above average), the impact hitter we saw in 2021 will not resurface unless he starts hitting for some degree of power once again. And that won’t happen until he successfully adjusts to how pitchers are beating him. But can he adjust? That’s what being a Major Leaguer is all about, and we’re going to see it in action for the rest of the season.
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Clearly the organization still believes they can be a competitive team. To be fair, they’ve only just begun getting the starting pitching they need and the added postseason spot makes it easier to get to the dance, but they’re going to need a lot of things to break right for them, all at once.
If you haven’t noticed, position players pitching has become a rather common thing in Major League ballgames this season. As teams face the dilemma of having to cover innings with bullpens made up of nothing but max-effort, single-inning pitchers, they have resorted to position players just kind of tossing the baseball towards the strikezone when the games get out of hand. This practice is embarrasing and just another example of MLB teams’ ruthless pursuit of efficiency. It’s an excellent piece by Patrick Dubuque.
On The Farm
Albuquerque (now 32-35) had their seven game winning streak broken up in Las Vegas after a convincing loss. Starter Ashton Goudeau had a poor outing (4.0 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 2 K, 1 HR), making the team fall behind early on, and the lineup was mostly silent outside of a couple of home runs by Carlos Pérez and Ryan Vilade, who seems to be finding his power swing again. Vilade’s homer was a 7th inning grand slam, however, bringing the score to a somewhat close 5-7 deficit, but the Aviators got a couple of runs back in the 8th inning and closed it out without much drama in the 9th. Isotope pitching allowed three home runs on the day and walked almost as many batters as they struck out, not a good formula for success. They’ll be looking to right the ship today and begin a new winning streak with right-hander Zach Neal (5-4, 6.51 ERA) on the mound.
An impressive win against a good Somerset team for the now 41-23 Yard Goats, who twice rallied to take the lead after losing it or falling behind. Noah Davis, who’s been struggling all season, worked into the 7th inning in one of his better starts of the campaign (6.2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 5 K, 2 HR) and got his fifth win of the season after the Hartford bullpen kept it scoreless the rest of the way. The main drivers of the Yard Goats lineup were Michael Toglia (2-for-4 with a HR and two RBI) and, as almost always, Ezequiel Tovar, who went 2-for-3 with a walk, a run scored and the go-ahead RBI single in the 7th inning and is now slashing .318/.394/.562 in Double-A. He doesn’t turn 21 until August 1st. Gavin Hollowell got his 10th save of the season in the 9th and Hartford took the ballgame 3-2, evening up their record with the Patriots at the top of their division and winning the first of a crucial six-game set. Since the two ballclubs are tied and the first half of the MiLB season ends after this series, the five games remaining will determine who gets the automatic postseason spot via winning the division. In other words, Hartford is playing a sort of LDS right now. Another interesting dynamic is that this series features two of the top prospects in the game, both shortstops: Ezequiel Tovar for Hartford and Anthony Volpe (who homered in this game) for Somerset. Hartford’s starter for today’s ballgame is TBD at the time of writing this piece.
It’s very difficult to win a ballgame after falling behind 7-1 by the 5th inning, and Spokane (32-30) couldn’t quite manage it despite a valiant effort in the final few frames. Starter Mike Ruff had a tough time against Everett (4.2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 4 BB, 6 K, 0 HR), with his ERA creeping over 4 for the first time this season. He has allowed 17 runs in 17.2 innings across his last four starts. The Spokane bullpen did a fine job after his exit, allowing just one more additional run the rest of the way, but the lineup’s 7th and 8th inning rallies weren’t quite enough despite scoring twice in each frame. As far as standout offensive performers go, Julio Carreras had himself a terrific game (3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and a run scored), Bladimir Restituyo homered, Braiden Ward stole two bags and scored twice and Eddy Díaz picked up a pair of singles. Spokane put the tying run on base in the 9th inning, but Drew Romo hit into a double play and that was that. Spokane will play the second game of the series today. Their starter is TBD at the time of writing this piece.
After jumping to an early 4-1 lead, Fresno held on against Modesto to improve to 40-24. The decisive hit in this one was a 2nd inning, three-run shot off the bat of centerfielder Trevor Boone. It gave the Grizzlies a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, with starter Jarrod Cande pitching five solid frames (5.0 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR) and the bullpen allowing just one more run the rest of the way despite running into some trouble here and there. Adael Amador, Warming Bernabel, Zach Kokoska and Benjamin Sems all reached base twice and the pitching and defense were enough for Fresno to hold the lead despite managing just five total hits and leaving eight runners on base. Fresno holds the best record and run differential in the California League, and they’re two games clear of San José for first place despite dropping five of six against them just this past week. Youngster Case Williams (4-2, 4.02 ERA) will take the ball today, looking to kickstart a new winning streak.
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