When the Pirates selected Connor Joe with the 39th overall pick in the 2014 draft, he was a first baseman who had played alongside Kris Bryant in the University of San Diego infield. Along the way, though, he had also played catcher and outfield, and it was unclear where he would wind up as a pro. Then, due to a back injury, Joe vanished for nearly a year, becoming a sort of mystery man among Pirates fans. This May, he reemerged, playing exclusively at first for the West Virginia Power. On Tuesday, I spoke with him about his injury, his fielding and his offensive approach. Here's the transcript, lightly edited for length and continuity.
How's your back, first of all?
It feels great, man. Thank you for asking.
[You were an] early-round pick, and then [we] didn't hear anything from you for such a long time. Is that frustrating?
It was. It was a roller coaster of emotions. Your ultimate high, you know, career dreams come true. I got shipped out to Jamestown and [was] excited to start my career, and then events happened. They sent me down to Bradenton to rehab. So it was just an ultimate high to, not an ultimate low, but low. But I learned a lot from it. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about my passion and love for the game. It all happens for a reason.
Any plans to get back to catching at some point?
It's not really in my hands right now.
Have [the Pirates] told you anything about that?
No, they haven't told me anything. They kind of just sent me out here, wanted me to play first base, and really just to get at-bats. Whatever they have in store for me, I'm game for.
Do you think that's because of health reasons?
I don't really know. I think catching would have been a bit slower to develop, and they just wanted to get me out and playing and get at-bats. It could be something in instructs, it could be something in Spring Training. I'm not sure. It hasn't been discussed.
It could be that after such a long time away from the game, it would be tough to work on your offense and catch.
Right. Exactly. So that's my thoughts. I don't know what they're thinking. Whatever they have for me sounds good to me.
You don't have any preference about your position?
No. I love hitting, and wherever they have me in the field, I'm going to work my hardest and do the best I can defensively to stay in the lineup.
What are the toughest things about playing first base?
I would say the stakes and the shifts we play as the Pirates organization ...
Yeah, which is, like, the positioning.
Oh, I see.
The stakes is the shifts, I guess you could say. The shifts, getting used to those. They have us playing pretty extreme stakes.
Really? I asked Cole Tucker about that and he said it wasn't that extreme.
Yeah, yeah. It's different for middle guys, as opposed to being a first baseman. At least for me. I'm used to playing more straight up, [and] they have me more extreme. As the ground ball is hit, I've got to sprint to the bag. And just the footwork when you're around the bag and receiving the throw was tough for me to pick up, and it's still tough.
Is there ever trouble knowing how to divvy up territory between yourself and the second baseman?
Well, there's always that tweener ball where there's this hesitation [about whether] to retreat back to the bag or go after it. But as you build a relationship -- I've built a relationship with Pablo [Reyes], who's our second baseman -- you kind of know where he's going to call the ball. We've played together every day of the season, so you understand what they're trying to do and where they're going to be at. So no, it's not that tough, but earlier on, it was.
Are you close with Kris Bryant?
I am, yeah. We played two years together at the University of San Diego. I got really close to him. He's a great kid. I love him. He shot me a text when I got out of Pirate City. We don't talk every day, but we're definitely good friends. We see each other in the offseason. I'm rooting for him.
Is it a situation where you can see where he's at, and it helps push you to be better?
Oh, absolutely. Watching Kris work every day at USD motivated me, and seeing where he's at now motivates me every day. I text him if I have a question about how to do something. He's been through every level, and he knows how everything works.
How do the pitchers here compare to the pitchers you faced as USD?
You just see a lot more live arms out here. College is more of a -- pitch backwards, you know, away from the middle guys in the lineup. Here, you get a lot of live arms that just go right after us. It's good. It's a challenge every day. You've got live arms out here that are learning to pitch, whereas college guys are, I'd say, more mature, and they kind of pitch to one style.
Which kind of pitcher is easier to deal with?
I wouldn't say one's easier than the other. It's kind of, just, adjust as a hitter.
How do you balance the need to be selective and have a good approach at the plate with the kinds of live-armed pitchers you're facing now? I notice you're drawing tons of walks, but you probably already knew you could do that.
I feel like I'm a little more of a mature hitter, and it's tough -- these guys with really live arms, sometimes they want to go out, and they miss in, and sometimes they want to go in, and they paint in. You get jumpy a little bit sometimes, when you want to produce. But overall, it's just being selective, staying within your approach, which the Pirates are big on.
What's the next skill you feel like you have to develop in order to move up?
Honestly, just getting more at-bats. I still don't have as many at-bats in my pro career as these other guys. I'm going to work a lot defensively in instructs and get better at first base and just work on being a better baseball player overall.