BRADENTON, Fl. – A year ago, the Pirates were trying out Connor Joe and Jordan Luplow at third base in Spring Training. Neither player had played the position since high school, with three years of college and half a season of pro ball at other positions. The question was, where would they play each guy, with both starting at the same level?

That didn’t turn into an issue. Joe was recovering from a back injury that he suffered in 2014, and that caused him to miss the start of the season. When he returned, the Pirates had him playing first base to ease him back into the game. That gave Luplow the chance to be the regular third baseman in West Virginia.

Both have been practicing at third again this year, and both are moving up to Bradenton. That creates the same problem of splitting playing time. But once again, an injury from the previous season will solve this issue.

Jordan Luplow went on the disabled list last August with a shoulder injury to his non-throwing shoulder. It turned out that he had a partially torn labrum, and needed surgery in the off-season to get it repaired. The timeline for his return was 4-6 months, and he’s approaching month six now. But when I talked to Larry Broadway yesterday, he said that Luplow will miss the start of the season. That will make Joe the third baseman for the short-term, and the Pirates see him at third base going forward.

“We committed to third base,” Broadway said of Joe’s position. “Last year, we just needed to get the bat going again. Third base was going to be hard, we didn’t want to stress the throws too much, so we decided to get him at first base.”

Joe has been getting time at third base since the Fall Instructional League, and has been working there exclusively this spring, including getting extra reps in the backfields of Pirate City with Minor League Infield Coordinator Gary Green.

This spring has been much different for Joe than last year, as he’s now fully healed from his back injury, rather than the slow approach the team took in building him up last year.

“I’m just another guy out there,” Joe said of the difference. “I couldn’t feel better. I’m doing the conditioning test, and going through the rotations. It’s no restrictions, no limitations, no medical staff behind me, watching me at every rep. It feels good, feels free. Playing the game, I love it.”

Meanwhile, it looks like they’re going to be a bit more conservative than that six month return for Luplow. The good news is that the injury happened with his non-throwing shoulder, so it doesn’t impact him much on the field. The impact has been at the plate, where he’s been restricted in hitting. He just started hitting off live pitching the last two days for the first time.

“They’re starting to let me ramp it up a little bit, hit off live pitching, and just go from there based on how I feel,” Luplow said.

This should give Joe at least a month of being the regular third baseman in Bradenton until the Pirates have to make a decision on how to split up playing time between the two players.

On the offensive side, both guys fit a similar profile. They’re advanced hitters who don’t strike out often, and draw a good amount of walks. They’ve got the ability to hit for average, hit for gap power, and unlike other players who have been drafted with similar profiles in recent years, these two have a good ability for over-the-fence power.

Luplow had a good overall season last year, but when you look at his splits, the offense got really impressive at the end of the year. He had a .694 OPS through the end of June, then exploded for a .994 OPS in his final two months, while hitting eight homers in 176 at-bats.

“I think it was getting more comfortable at third,” Luplow said of the second half success. “The first half of the season, I was trying to figure out where to play, how to take ground balls and make the throw. It’s a lot different. Every throw from third is going to matter, unlike outfield where if you miss a cutoff and the guy doesn’t advance a base, it’s not an error. Every throw is important, and just getting my footwork right. I got a lot more comfortable in the second half, so hopefully I can carry that into the season.”

As for Joe, you once again have to look beyond the numbers to see the highlights. He had a .670 OPS, which isn’t what you’d want from a college hitter in Low-A ball. But he looked advanced at the plate, with a .366 OBP, and a 14% walk rate that was higher than his 11.7% strikeout rate. His swing is quick and smooth, and he can turn on an inside pitch quickly and show off some power potential. Seeing him live last year, and so far this year, the stats don’t match the offensive upside he has.

Part of the struggle might have been the long layoff from the back injury, and the lack of regular playing time when he returned. Another part might have been finally adjusting to pro ball from college.

“I [wasn’t] overmatched at all,” Joe said, acknowledging the strikeouts and walks. “I don’t feel like I did badly. Just learning the pro game and the pro style. Just getting into the routine. Learning how to play the game everyday. College is different. You play four games maybe a week, and this is different how you play everyday.”

The question in 2016 is whether learning third base will impact his offense early like it did with Luplow. Luplow said that his biggest challenge at third has been footwork and the throws. Specifically, he said it’s about learning to change direction to the bases he wants to throw to, and getting the momentum going in that direction. A lot of this has to do with adjusting to the speed of the game.

“It’s a different speed than high school,” Luplow said, referencing his previous experience at the position. “To go from high school to pro ball, that’s a huge jump. I played outfield all of college. It was a big jump at first.”

In this area, Joe might have an easier transition. Luplow played outfield all throughout college, but Joe played the infield at times, and played third base last year. It will still be an adjustment for him, but with more familiarity in the infield, he should have an easier transition than Luplow, which might not impact his numbers as much.

Both guys are very promising players, and their bats become extremely valuable to the organization if they can stick at third base, where there is little depth in the system in the upper levels (the top prospect at the position, Ke’Bryan Hayes, is a level below them). Their path at third is easier compared to the outfield, where there is no path to the majors when you factor in the current MLB squad, plus the top prospects already ahead of them. Joe will get the first shot at third base in Bradenton this year, and when Luplow returns, things will get interesting seeing how the Pirates handle the playing time at third base.

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51 COMMENTS

  1. Man do I love that ’14 draft…

    Upside, floor, college, high school, bats, arms. It’s easy to sit back and criticize for missing on AJ Reed, but I don’t think they get near enough credit for what they pulled off in the position they had.

      • Loved the value pick in Newman and think Hayes is one of the “safest” upside high school kids taken that late in a while, but honestly didn’t like much of anything after that save for snagging Jacob Taylor as an upside college arm with little mileage (which of course immediately led to TJS. Pitchers, man.).

        • I ask because I noticed an interesting trend last year. Some scouts I talked with loved the 2014 group, but didn’t know what they were doing in 2015. Some loved the 2015 group after hating the 2014 approach.

          I’ve yet to talk to anyone who said they loved both drafts. People have liked different picks in each one (most who didn’t like 2014 liked Tucker and Keller), but it’s usually the same as what you just said there: I like these two picks, but don’t like the rest, and love the entire other draft.

          Just an interesting trend, and no consistency where one draft is liked more than others. So I always ask when I see someone say they love one of those drafts.

  2. I’ve liked Joe’s bat since we drafted him. Hopefully he can put together a couple healthy seasons to bring it along. He seems like a solid corner utility guy for the bench at least if the hitting develops the way his profile suggests it might.

      • Yeah, lets highlight the months he did well and not focus when he didn’t do well. That’s classic cherry picking….”His OPS was XYZ the last 2 months of the year….”

        • Oh, you meant arbitrary endpoints…yeah, I’m not a huge fan of that either to be honest with you.

          • The thing about the minors is that players are always developing. Sometimes they can make a change and the numbers immediately turn around. Sometimes they make a change and it takes a longer time for the change to reflect in the stats.

            The arbitrary endpoints thing is only when there’s a clear change. Notice that in Alen Hanson’s article the other day, I just said he was inconsistent with the bat, and didn’t talk up his big May too much or talk down his bad months. It was just pointing out the trends.

            In this case, you’ve got a guy who all of a sudden starts mashing the ball. So I take those stats to the player and see what changed. We did the same thing with Bell in regards to his lowered leg kick in Indianapolis.

            Arbitrary endpoints are a great thing to follow in the minors if they might show progression. If you’re talking “From April 15th to May 22nd”, then that’s useless, unless you’re saying a player has good stretches and can’t stay consistent. But if you see a situation like Luplow or Bell, where a player suddenly starts putting up better numbers the rest of the year, then that’s important, as there might be some development there.

            • See, I’m torn here…

              I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the big prospect sites warn about the predictive value of late-season stats, and for good reason. (Willy Garcia’s strikeouts, for example)

              But as you say, there are certainly *some* instances of late-season performance being driven by a definable and repeatable change. The hard part is teasing out which is which.

              “I think it was getting more comfortable at third” is admittedly about as flimsy as it gets, but like I said to John, the counting stats were backed up by significant peripheral improvement which is a hell of a lot harder to fake. I’m optimistic.

              • I don’t think I’m using these as a prediction for the future though. Just giving the player’s explanation for the change. I ask this all the time. If the player gives an answer that makes sense, I go with it. If he gives an answer that doesn’t hold up, I don’t.

                All of it is to provide the story behind the numbers. I feel like that’s what you have to do when you blend statistical analysis and live reports and reporting on the player. You look at the numbers, then find out what you can beyond the numbers. If they both match up, great. If they don’t, then you’ve got to decide which one makes more sense.

                But either way, nothing is final. Players move up, they meet new challenges, they don’t maintain a fix that makes sense and worked for them for some time. My approach is to do a running document of what’s going on with a player, with as much info as possible. And then the fun part is looking back in a few years and seeing what stuck and what didn’t.

                • Excellent response, Tim. Couldn’t agree more. Your job, first and foremost, is reporting. And nobody is getting these kind of stories like you are.

        • Really tough to call cherry picking…..when he mentions the overall number. What you want is “here is the overall number, here’s an interesting point about how he ended the year, but again here’s the overall number in case we forgot.”

          Its inherently relevant to the conversation (and a great quote that follows that paragraph) to mention any big difference in splits. He didnt omit a reference to his poor start, so its terrible cherry picking if it was indeed that.

          • I’m not just referring to this article, I’m speaking in general and Tim is notorious for cherry picking stats. Not calling him out, it’s just an observation on my end.

            • Maybe “cherry picking” isn’t the greatest way to say it; at least to me that term implies bias and ulterior motive, which it doesn’t seem like you’re intending.

              • This seems like the confusion to me. You rarely get “cherry pick” without the negative connotation of bias.

                But im not sure he helps his “Intent” by implying Tim often does it. He does often present splits in this way, but its really never inherently to deceive a reader. Or thats how i see it.

        • The problem with that in this case is that Luplow said he felt more comfortable at the plate as the season went along and Tim pointed to the stats that backed up Luplow’s comment. I don’t like when people use a small sample size either, but his slow start was pointed out right before the two month period was mentioned, so you see the split. You have a reference point of a slow start to compare to when he said he got comfortable. It was a good lead-in to the comments from Luplow

          • Not huge on narrative end points…you don’t hear players say they feel *bad* after starting to hit, after all.

            But Luplow’s split is backed up by 3% gain in walks, 7% decrease in strikeouts, and a 122 point jump in ISO. Hell of a lot harder to fake that than some small sample BABIP luck, for instance.

        • It’s very common to see guys in full season ball improve at the end of the season. And the point here was to get the “why” of that improvement. He got comfortable at third, and started improving at the plate.

        • “Luplow had a good overall season last year, but when you look at his splits, the offense got really impressive at the end of the year. He had a .694 OPS through the end of June, then exploded for a .994 OPS in his final two months, while hitting eight homers in 176 at-bats.”

          It’s all factual, and it’s not hiding the bad numbers. What is your problem with it, exactly?

  3. Great write-up, Tim.

    Joe’s contact ability looks even better when using the traditional K/PA calculation (9.5%). K/AB hurts high-walk players by reducing the denominator. Also a good time to revisit the great work on bust rate by minor league K & BB percentages, which are far more predictive than counting stats:

    http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2013/6/7/4402222/minor-league-baseball-walk-strikeout-rates-prospects

    A-ball players with high walk, low strikeout profiles have been found to be the safest and most productive of all players. Both Joe and Luplow fit this category. I think Tim’s gonna end up looking very good for giving these guys the attention they deserve.

    • Odd to see so many people as low as they are on him. Tough to get super high or super low on him, but its a safe skill set for sure and the back injury makes any “what has he done for me lately” arguments kinda silly. Big year for him.

      • Folks on message boards love their numerical rankings and “upside”. Jacob Gatewood couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a f*cking boat but you still hear people saying it was a mistake not to take him because of overly aggressive draft rankings and batting practice power.

        Joe never stood a chance.

        • Injury, position change, now firmly behind Kebryan Hayes and whatever number of these SSs dont pan out at 6.

          Nope. No chance at all.

          • Ha! That sure is rich coming from the guy that’s been mansplaining to us all winter about counting our prospect chickens before they hatch.

            Yep, no chance at all that the Pittsburgh Pirates will need a 1B/3B/Corner OF at any point in the next decade. None.

            • There were quite a few guys beyond Gatewood available.Some of them in the same contact ilk as future stud Connor Joe.

              Christ, I think the day he was drafted the word was he wasn’t sticking at catcher. Dont make sense to me man.

              • He wasn’t a catcher. When he was drafted, the word was that he’d be really valuable if they tried to make him a full time catcher. And that was their plan until the back injury threw that out the window.

              • So two things here…first, you don’t get to go back in hindsight and choose which guy you now think the Pirates should’ve picked. One shot. Jake Gatewood busting is the same as Connor Joe busting, not well, forget Gatewood what about Player Y.

                Second, look back at that list taken between Joe’s pick and Mitch Keller, the Pirates next choice. Is there anyone other than Reed or Spencer Adams that you’re seriously fretting about missing out on right now? As an admitted prospect skeptic? Honest question.

                I’m not saying Joe was a fantastic pick, by any means. All I’m saying is that he absolutely made sense for what the Pirates were targeting, and was taken at a point in any draft – let alone one notably weak – where *nobody* has any good idea who will end up being what.

          • Damn Pirates cant tell when a player is going to get injured shortly after being drafted.

            Morans.

              • He wasnt injured during the time of the draft, so bitching about drafting him and mentioning the injury in the same thread makes no sense.

                Changing positions from 1B to 3B is a positive thing, since there has never been a fan jaded enough to go “he clearly sucked at 1B, thats why they are trying to see if he can handle 3B.”

                • Smh. Guy who lost a year to injury, has played C, 1B, and now moving to 3rd. With a .670 OPS.

                  And OPTIMISM from you, NMR, and Tim.

                  Fwiw, I hope I’m wrong and you guys are right.

                  • See, this conversation isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. None of us are saying Connor Joe is a no-doubt future stud. None. Not once.

                    We’re saying, based on years of past precedence, that continuing to fault a player based on the number he was ranked by pre-draft pundits, a significant injury, and counting stats from his first taste of pro ball is faulty logic.

                    You’re *already* wrong if this is the mentality with which you track prospects. Development isn’t linear.

                    • But you did say he was making it? I don’t know man. Of all your opinions, Connor Joe theory perplexes me the most. Pick was ripped at the time. By a few places I thought you were high on.

                    • Yes the pick was ripped, and part of my (and ill let NMR speak for himself) is that pundits love to rip a high floor low ceiling guy. Take Gatewood and fans and pundits love it, ignoring that he cant actually hit but the power makes people glaze over.

                      Picks like Joe late in the 1st round or comp rounds always get groans from many people, but a high floor college hitter with plus overall offensive skills shouldnt be as hated as he already is. He may not work out, but it wont be because of where he was “supposed” to go in the draft via pundits and his first 200 at bats in A ball.

                    • Believe me, I don’t expect you to monitor my exact stances on different outlets but I’ve long considered draft coverage in general to have by far the least value of any area because quite frankly, they *all* suck at it. Even more so than prospect rankings and certainly big league analysis, draft rankings are almost worthless once you get past a couple dozens guys or so. The rest is a big, fat guess.

                      Try this…without looking, who did the St Louis Cardinals draft with their second pick in 2009?

                      You don’t remember, I don’t remember, nobody remembers, because frankly it doesn’t fucking matter. That player busted, but they hit on enough picks in the draft that the order in which they were taken is completely academic. It just doesn’t matter.

                      The Pirates will ultimately be judged on whether or not Connor Joe succeeds, not whether or not they picked Connor Joe in the correct round. I’ve defended the pick because at it’s core, I expect a competent management team to plan a focused approach to the draft, identify kids that fit the intended goal, and see those kids general match what they thought they’d be once in pro ball.

                      The Pirates specifically targeted athletic, versatile position players with contact/patience over power. They identified Connor Joe as fitting those traits, and to date, it cannot be argued that he has been *exactly* that.

                    • Well, when he gets to Altoona, Leo Walter will let you know, bud. Keith Law and BA be damned. 😉

                    • That being said, you *absolutely* still credit Houston for seeing more in AJ Reed than anyone else.

                      Reed was the polar opposite of what the Pirates were targeting, but god damn, if you have scouts who thought he could be *this* good then you throw your strategy out the window and take the player.

  4. With Joe moving over to 3B, this probably means that Edwin Espinal begins the year in Bradenton at 1B. That could mean that Osuna starts at 1B in Altoona with Stetson Allie as his back-up.

  5. I am still not sold on Joe. He didn’t show much with the bat last year and guys that tend to walk often usually don’t swing the bat much. I am hoping it was the injury that impacted him and now that he is healthy the Bucs will have an abundant amount of 3b prospects in the system, which was barren for the most part prior to this year.

  6. Sucks that luplow won’t be able to hit ground running. Thought he was most likely breakout guy in system this year.

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