“His bat won’t be special if he winds up at first base (where he has spent most of his college career), but he could provide serious value if he can stick behind the plate. Joe started catching last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he caught in the all-star game, and he has split time between catcher, first base and the outfield this spring. He’s learning the nuances of catching, from receiving to blocking to his footwork and transfer, and he needs plenty of refinement. But he has at least an average arm and a quick release. He was a middle infielder in high school, and he has good enough hands and agility to have a chance behind the plate.” — Baseball America, 2014
At first glance, this might seem like an evaluation for a young Dom Nuñez or Willie MacIver. However, the catcher being referenced here is Connor Joe, the Colorado Rockies’ ultimate utility player who covers not only the outfield and first base, but also serves as the team’s emergency catcher.
His time behind the plate allowed him to develop his skills more fully and expand his appreciation for other parts of the game.
When Did Connor Joe Begin Catching?
“I was never a catcher growing up,” Joe said, adding one qualifier, “Now obviously I caught in Little League because everyone really wants to put the gear on.”
Joe’s catching career truly began when he was a junior at the University of San Diego. He spent his freshman and sophomore years playing first base and the outfield. Catching was not part of his early player-development plan.
However, that changed in the summer of 2013 when Joe was playing for the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod League in preparation for his junior year of college. The Toreros had lost their senior catcher and were planning to rely on a high-profile high school catcher who had committed in addition to a junior college transfer.
Still, Torero head coach Rich Hill wasn’t sure, so he made a phone call.
As Joe remembers, “My coach called me [and said], ‘Hey, we think this high school kid is going to get drafted pretty high. We think he’s going to take the money, which leaves us just with the junior college guy. I don’t know exactly how he’s going to hit D1, so we might need you as an option to catch. Maybe throw some gear on on the Cape and get some reps back there?’”
Connor Joe didn’t hesitate: “I said, ‘Sure.’”
He says of learning to catch on the fly, “I did just fine. It’s a tough place to learn to catch. I was really trying to hit well and show myself well, but I did just fine.” The numbers agree with his assessment: Joe caught 21 games, earning a Fld% of .994.
After returning to San Diego, he continued to hone his skills.
“I went back to school in the fall and did a lot of work with our catching coach then,” Joe said, “and ended up being the starting catcher my junior year and split time with that kid that was a junior college catcher.”
He added, “It happened really fast. I think being an infielder helped me a lot just because, like my hands, how my feet work, and all that stuff. So that’s how it came about.”
Connor Joe caught in 24 games for the Toreros and was good enough to be USD’s Johnny Bench Award nominee in 2014.
Did He Continue to Catch in His Professional Career?
When the Pirates drafted Connor Joe as their 39th pick in the 2014 draft, they planned to use him as an outfielder rather than as a catcher.
As Pirates Prospects noted following the draft, “As a catcher, he was described as very athletic, with good speed for the position and an average arm, but there were questions about whether he’d be able to stay there.”
Fast forward to 2019, after Joe had been traded to the Braves, then the Dodgers, before being selected by the Reds in the 2018 Rule 5 draft. The Reds, however, intended to see what Joe could do behind the plate.
The initial results seemed positive. As Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart put it, “You get thrown into the fire here pretty early catching big league arms, especially guys he’s never caught before . . . . It’s tough for me. I can’t imagine what it’s like for him, but he hasn’t shown any signs that it’s too hard for him. He looks really good.” (You can see Connor Joe in his Reds catching gear here.)
His catching career all but ended in 2019, when he was traded to the Giants before being DFA’d and returned to the Dodgers and then picked up by the Rockies who have used him as a utility player. But he’s a utility player in the truest sense of the word since he’s also the Rockies’ emergency catcher.
Does He Continue to Practice as a Catcher?
These days, Connor Joe mostly catches enough to keep his skills fresh. He “tracks” bullpen sessions and caught a few bullpens in Spring Training.
He understands the value of being more versatile than the average utility player — and what could be more valuable than a player who could step in as an effective catcher should the moment demand it?
“That’s something I always have in my back pocket,” Joe said. “It’s something I’m comfortable with if the situation calls for it.”
His time tracking bullpens has also reinforced for him how hard the Rockies’ pitching staff works.
“Obviously, we see [the pitching staff] compete on the mound in games, but to watch them work outside of the game is really impressive — how focused their bullpens are, how specific they are with their work,” Joe said. “I know they have a lot of technology out there — the slow motion camera, the TrackMan — they’re analyzing everything. So a lot of respect for them and seeing a different side of the game from that perspective.”
That said, he acknowledges the physical demands of the position.
“I did it in a college season, and that’s nowhere near as much as a big league season,” Joe said. “I have so much respect for catchers.”
He pointed to the resilience of Rockies starting catcher Elias Díaz. “He gets beat up every day and comes back out the next day and is still working,” Joe said. “Just a lot of respect for those guys, how much they work, how much of a beating they take, and how much knowledge they need to know — not just scouting the pitcher we’re facing that day, but they need to know the whole staff and the whole other lineup.”
While he’s confident with his skills as a catcher, he’s less sure of his ability to use some of the technology that goes with contemporary catching. For example, would he use PitchCom?
“For sure, no,” Joe said. “I’ve looked at that thing — they don’t label it. So like I don’t know where the pitches are. [I’d] probably just go with the old-school signs system.”
Whatever happens, Connor Joe is prepared.