Connor Joe hung out behind the third-base bag while a lazy Sunday doubleheader at McKechnie Field drew near an end.
Bradenton relief pitcher Henry Hirsch delivered his pitch to first baseman Gavin LaValley, who blistered a line drive down the left-field line. In an instant, Joe leapt and stretched his glove to the sky to snare the liner. The public address system boomed Joe’s name, and what was left of the 2,264 who once filled McKechnie peppered the third baseman with applause.
Moments later, Daytona’s 10-3, seven-inning victory was complete.
“The more he’s playing there, the more he’s learning there,” manager Michael Ryan said. “He’s been so good at times you forget that he’s new to the position and that shows you how much of an improvement he’s made.”
Joe has never had a set position. Even as a star at the University of San Diego, he played five positions for the Toreros. The Pirates took him 39th overall in the 2014 MLB draft, during which he was announced as an outfielder.
Pittsburgh moved him to catcher, although an injury ended the experiment before it began. After playing his first season in the organization at first base with Class A West Virginia, Joe is settling in at third base for the Pirates’ Class A Advanced affiliate.
“It’s been good. I’m definitely learning a lot. It’s been challenging, but I’ve embraced it,” Joe said. “I know I can bounce around, and I’m athletic enough to do that.”
Versatility was part of the selling point that led to Joe being taken in competitive balance round A, technically making him a first-round pick for Pittsburgh. He went to USD as an infielder with high school experience at second and third. He mainly played first base for San Diego with brief stints at catcher and in the outfield.
Versatility was also bred by necessity. When he joined the Toreros, Kris Bryant was already entrenched at third base. Despite being one of only five first-round picks in Torero history, Joe was a glorified utility man.
“We had Kris Bryant, so it’s hard to play over that guy,” Joe said. “Coach Rich Hill kind of bounced everyone around.”
The more obvious selling point, though, was his bat. As a senior in 2014, Joe batted .367 with nine home runs and a .606 slugging percentage. The problem so far in his professional career is that he hasn’t always lived up to that potential.
Joe missed all of 2014 — the year he was supposed to spend behind the plate — and then hit a pedestrian .245 in 2015 with West Virginia.
His first month in the Florida State League was an abject disaster, too. He batted .213 with a .289 on-base percentage and .293 slugging percentage. Those numbers only marginally improved by the All-Star break. He reached the midway point of the season .241/.303/.355, but that was enough to get him into the All-Star Game.
“He was really good in spring training swinging the bat, so I don’t think that the position change affected him much,” Ryan said. “It was just an adjustment to the new league.
In the month since the break, Joe has hit to the opposite field more consistently and has developed into one of the Marauders’ best contact hitters, batting .354 with a .388 on-base percentage and .494 slugging percentage. He collected Bradenton’s only two RBIs during the second game Sunday with a fourth-inning double and a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the seventh.
The final RBI came only a few minutes after one of Joe’s defensive gems. It also came a few minutes after his inexperience showed. The next batter after LaValley lined out to Joe was Aristides Aquino. The outfielder tapped a grounder to Joe, who lowered his glove, ready to try for a play at first base, only to have the ball bounced off the heel and into foul territory. It was an infield single, but the sort of play a third baseman is expected to make.
“It’s going to be fun to watch where he’s going to be,” Ryan said, “as far as improvements here near the end of the year and into next.”