Connor Joe made a series of adjustments in the second half of 2023, improving his performance and creating a potentially more sustainable approach going forward
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Connor Joe from the Colorado Rockies last off-season in exchange for minor league pitcher Nick Garcia. For the first month of the season, Joe looked unstoppable at the plate, batting .288/.387/.575 with a .406 wOBA, and 156 wRC+ at the end of April. Joe had four home runs and an 11.8% walk rate, with the only blemish on his month of April being his 24.7% strikeout rate.
But the next two months were rough for Joe. In May and June, Joe hit just .209/.291/.331 with a .278 wOBA, and 70 wRC+, meaning he was 30% worse than the league average hitter. While he still managed an above average 9.1% walk rate, he also saw his strikeout rate rise to 30.3%. The power he had shown at the start of the season also had evaporated, with just a .122 isolated slugging percentage.
However, from July through the end of the season, Joe rebounded, and was a pretty solid hitter. His final 214 plate appearances yielded a .259/.355/.427 slash line. Joe once again got his walk rate above 10% to 11.2%, and his power also rebounded, putting up a .168 isolated slugging percentage (league average was .166).
All told, Joe had a .343 wOBA, and 113 wRC+. Sure, it wasn’t the MVP-caliber production Joe was putting out in April, but a 113 wRC+ is still good. So what happened from the start of the year to the second half that caused Joe to have such fluctuating stats? What adjustments did he make in the second half to hit much better than he did in May-June?
The first thing is that Joe saw a lot of fastballs at the start of the year. On average, 49.5% of the pitches he saw were fastballs, or pitches FanGraphs registers as fastballs. Then in May-June, he saw that rate go down to 45.4%. That might not seem like a massive drop, but it was enough to make a difference. Joe had a .333 wOBA against four-seamers and a .416 wOBA against sinkers, so it makes sense he saw a massive dip in fastball/fastball-type pitches.
That usage went toward curveballs, which he only saw 7.6% of the time in April, but 10% of the time in May/June. Again, this makes sense because Joe finished the year with a .272 wOBA and 27.5% whif rate against curveballs. But baseball is called the game of adjustments for a reason. While Joe saw more fastballs in July through the end of the year (47.8%), he still saw curveballs at a 10.1% rate.
While you’d think being more aggressive at pitches outside the zone would lead to more strikeouts, it didn’t for Joe. In April, he had an 18% out of zone swing rate (O-swing rate), but just an 18% O-swing contact rate. In May-June, he saw his O-swing rate rise to 23.9% and his O-contact rate also rise to 65.3% (from 52.3% in April). However, this came at the cost of his in-zone contact rate, which dropped from 87.2% to 83.1%.
But Joe adopted a contact approach at the plate. Sure, he saw his out of zone swing rate rise even further to 26.5%, and while his O-swing contact rate stayed about the same at 63.2%, his in-zone contact rate rose to nearly 90% at 89.5%. Of the 214 batters who had at least 200 plate appearances from the start of July through the end of the year, Joe had the 55th best Z-contact rate.
Joe not only made more contact on pitches in the zone, but became much more aggressive when he saw a pitch that would have been called a strike. In April, his zone swing rate was 62.6%, but fell to 58.5% in May-June. That rose back up to 62.2% in July-October.
Even though he was swinging more often in July through the end of the year compared to April, or May-June, his K% dropped significantly, down to just 17.3%. Combined with his strong walk rate, Joe had the 30th best BB:K ratio in baseball from July-October (min 200 PAs).
But the most important thing is that despite the change in approach, Joe did not lose much of his raw power. Joe had an 89.4 MPH exit velocity/43.6% hard hit rate in July-end of season. That’s significantly better from what he did in May-June (87.1 MPH/33.7%), and comparable to his numbers from April (90.7 MPH/49.1%).
The biggest change in batted ball numbers Joe made was taking on a much more fly ball approach. He had a 19.7 degree launch angle during July-October. He had already saw that rise from 10.4 degrees in April and 15.7 degrees in May-June.
One last change Joe made was, oddly enough, facing same-handed pitching.
Joe came into the year as more of a platoon batter, and even when he was struggling greatly in May and June, he was still able to produce a 98 wRC+ against lefties. Joe then became very productive against right-handed pitching, owning a 122 wRC+ when facing same-handed pitchers. When facing a lefty, however, he still had a respectable 100 wRC+.
While Joe sacrificed some in-game power, he still managed to keep up good raw power, while striking out less, and walking at the same rate. To me, that's a more sustainable approach to the plate moving forward. Nobody expected him to keep up his torrid April pace, but nobody predicted he'd do so poorly in May and June. What he did after June, however, seems like the real him.
Even if we never get the Connor Joe we saw in April, I’ll still take what we got from him in July through the end of the season. A 110-115 wRC+ is still a very good hitter. His 113 wRC+ was better than Luis Robert, Luis Arraez, Christian Walker, and Bo Bichette in the same time frame. We will see what role the Pirates use Joe in moving forward, but given the improvements and changes he made after June, I’d be excited to see what comes next.