Could Connor Joe see playing time in center field this season?

Connor Joe saw his first Spring Training game in center field, but could he handle the position more often in 2024?
Aug 27, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Connor Joe (2) makes
Aug 27, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Connor Joe (2) makes / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What, if anything, should be taken from Connor Joe starting Friday's Grapefruit League game in center field

Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder/first baseman Connor Joe started in center field on Friday afternoon. Joe has never played up the middle in his professional career. He has mostly played first base, left field, and right field.

The only time he played anything other than these three positions was back in 2016 and 2017 when he saw some time at the hot corner. While there are plenty of ways to utilize Joe, it has been at least since high school that Joe has played any center, but could Joe handle the position if he is asked to this year?

Defensive metrics were mostly kind to Joe last year. Although defensive runs saved had him at -3 in 543.1 innings, outs above average pinned him at +1. Meanwhile, UZR/150 also viewed him in a positive light at +8.2 in his time in the outfield corners. However, one of the most important aspects of a center fielder is the routes they run and how quick they are on the gun, and Joe did show some quickness with his defense.

His jump was +1.1 feet better than average, meaning he covered +1.1 more feet than the average jump, which is measured three seconds after the pitch is released. That was better than Julio Rodriguez, Chas McCormick, and Jason Heyward. Joe also took good routes to the ball, with Baseball Savant pinning him at +0.8. Joe also had a good burst of +0.8, which is the amount of ground covered after the first 1.5 seconds after the key step. That put him in the top 50 in baseball and above and ranked above Mike Trout, Steven Kwan, and Luis Robert. However, his reaction was a tad slow at -0.4 feet vs average.

Range-wise, Joe isn’t as slow as some may think. His 27.1 feet/second was just slightly above the league average of 27 feet/second. However, it would make him one of the slowest center fielders in the game, as only three primary center fielders had a lower sprint speed than Joe. Granted, he’d have the same sprint speed as guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and former Pirate Starling Marte, who didn’t have trouble covering ground in the outfield last year.

Joe might be able to make up for some of his lack of range with his powerful arm. His throws from the outfield averaged 90.2 MPH, putting him in the top 50 among outfielders and in the top 84th percentile overall among all MLB players. So, while he might not be super fast, he can get the ball in quickly.

With all that being said, I think the Pirates could put Joe in center occasionally, and he’d do fine. Joe runs decent routes and gets good jumps. His arm is also very strong, and he will be able to make throws without any issues. The only thing I’d be worried about is his range. Again, he’d be one of the slowest center fielders in baseball if he played there more regularly. But as long as the Pirates don’t fully commit to Joe in center, and play him there part-time at most, I think he’d be fine defensively.

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