At Spring Training a year ago, the Colorado Rockies were a ship setting sail on fire.
The trade of a superstar and the impending free agency of another created a dark cloud around everything.
But in November, when the storm was still just a brew, they did something that captured very few headlines and garnered almost no hype. They signed Connor Joe.
Joe was taken by the Pirates with the 39th overall pick back in 2015 and was having a solid minor league career despite getting traded to Atlanta then LA.
He had his best season yet in 2018, posting a wRC+ of 169 in Double-A, getting the call to Triple-A, and he kept it going with a wRC+ of 131.
He repeated that success with an almost spooky consistency, putting up a wRC+ of 132 in 2019. That’s especially impressive when you consider that he was taken by the Reds from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft, then traded to San Francisco where he made his MLB debut getting just 16 plate appearances, before returning to LA to play the remainder of the season back in Triple-A.
After all that, it was time for a fresh start and Joe declared free agency, signing with the Rockies in November, showing what he could do in March, powering his way back to MLB on May 7.
As debuts go, they don’t get much better than having the fans chant your name like some kind of folk hero in your very first game.
“That was special, man,” he recalls. “I don’t know what I did to deserve that. To be embraced like that by the fans is spectacular and something I’m very grateful for.”
Joe knows that nothing was guaranteed just because he finally made it back to the Bigs.
“From proving to myself that I could play after all the treatments, proving to the baseball world that I could still do it and then finding my way back to the big leagues to make an impact on a day-to-day level, I couldn’t have written it up any better. I’m just grateful, honestly.”
With his first campaign in the books, Joe is ready to keep proving things to himself and others, most especially that he is more than a good story. He is a good baseball player.
Posting a 117 OPS+ in 63 games was a great start, but it is just a start. To stay at this level, you have to find a way to keep it going and that begins right now in Scottsdale, Arizona.
By comparison to last year, Joe has had a wildly different experience this Spring Training. Or, perhaps, a mundanely different experience.
“It’s nice to come in here, be familiar with the guys, with the staff, with the complex, the logistics, and know exactly what my day is going to look like,” he says. “I think familiarity is big for me, honestly.”
One thing that will absolutely be to his benefit is his life-long familiarity with seeing the baseball diamond from every angle as often as possible.
“It’s something that I’ve embraced,” he says of being tasked to play left, right, first base, or DH on any given day. “Not just this year but honestly my whole career I’ve bounced around. I think everyone grew up as a shortstop, I did in little league, but after that I’ve been bouncing all over the field, so I’m used to it. It’s a role I’ve embraced. I’ve learned my routine to get my work in every spot. I’m ready for the day wherever I’m gonna be in the lineup.”
He also doesn’t just think about this aspect of his game from a personal perspective but a team one as well adding, “I think it’s a great way, especially with the DH and with how this team is constructed, to be able to get everyone at-bats. Any way to be in the lineup, I’m happy.”
Once he’s in there, the Rockies have one of their more patient hitters and one who just might make himself an indispensable part of it. Again.
A big reason to believe Joe, beyond his clear determination, is that his approach at the plate is so natural that he managed to keep his cool despite trying to hit while debuting to fans chanting his name.
You would think it would be hard to keep your cool under those circumstances and not extend yourself in an attempt to fulfill the role of the hero of the moment.
“It wasn’t that hard, honestly,” Joe says, though. “It’s something I’ve done my whole baseball career. I’ve always had really good knowledge of the strike zone, I know what kind of pitches I can hit hard and I’ve been able to stick to that approach growing up. It’s something that’s ingrained in me. I think last year being in the big leagues with all the external noise, it was easy to fall back on that approach. It’s always been my game. I embrace walks. I embrace getting on base any which way I can.”
Really, he just wants to be in the ballgame.
“Everyone loves being on base, right? Everyone loves running the bases and being in the action, right? Better that than sitting on the bench.”
Put him in, coach.
It appears Joe’s signature patience and versatility will be tested again. He may not have an obvious spot on the roster right now but he has one.
And if the journey he has gone through so far is any indication, when his name is called by his manager, or chanted by his fans, he will be ready.