When potential No. 1 overall pick Brooks Lee steps into the batter’s box, kids, families and college students clap. However, when the 6-foot-3, 270-pound first baseman Joe Yorke follows him in the three-hole, fans cheer and chant: “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
“He’s great; infectious personality, just overall good person, good human being,” assistant coach Ben Greenspan said about the fan-favorite first baseman.
Yorke has been a menace to opposing team’s pitchers. He has a .352 batting average, 46 RBIs, 34 walks and a .909 OPS. Even though stats show his undeniable impact on the team, Yorke’s character is even more notable for coach Greenspan.
“Bigger picture for me is what he brings to the team is valuable in the batter’s box, but also in terms of comradery, what kind of teammate he is and the attitude he shows up to every practice and game with,” Greenspan said.
Yorke’s ability to connect with anyone brings the team together. That infectious personality motivates his teammates to grind harder in practice and prepare best for games. Having the entire team look to Yorke as a leader and him demonstrating the utmost commitment to the game creates an entire 36-man roster working to be their best.
Meet “Big Joe”
The Campbell, California kid played high school ball at Archbishop Mitty. His coach there was Brian Yocke, who had coached Yorke since seventh grade.
“[Yocke] is like a second dad to me,” Yorke said. “I talk to him once or twice a week.”
One special high school memory for Yorke was getting to play with his brothers. In his senior year, all three of Joe, Zach (Grand Canyon University commit) and Nick Yorke (17th overall pick in 2020 draft to the Boston Red Sox) got to play together. It was the first and only time the brothers were all on the same team.
While Nick has plenty of game knowledge to offer, Joe said that the two focus on baseball less now.
“We’re kinda brothers first and baseball players second… which is cool because our whole relationship has revolved around baseball,” Yorke said. “We get to actually enjoy each other as people now.”
Yorke initially went to Boise State out of high school, but the baseball program was cut during COVID-19. When looking for a new school to play for, Cal Poly came up quickly.
Yorke was already familiar with head coach Larry Lee and Brooks from his youth when he played with the shortstop one summer in middle school. His brother Nick toured the school and greatly enjoyed coach Lee and the program.
“Nick said if it was a power-five program, he probably would have ended up coming here,” Yorke said. “Knowing how much [Nick] loved [Cal Poly] made my decision easy.”
From his position at first base, Yorke makes a big impression on opposing coaches.
“Everybody we play, their first-base coach goes ‘I love your first baseman, he’s awesome, I love talking to that dude,’” Greenspan said.
What opposing first-base coaches don’t enjoy is Yorke’s red-hot bat. From April 16-May 21, Yorke went on a 20-game hitting streak. In 11 games, Yorke was 29-for-51 (.569) with seven doubles, two home runs and 18 RBIs.
“It’s crazy, I have never had a stretch like this,” Yorke said. “In high school, travel ball… nothing like this, so it’s pretty cool to be doing it here at the collegiate level.”
In the midst of this hot streak against CSU Bakersfield, Yorke went 5-for-5 with two doubles. Five days later, in their midweek home matchup against Pepperdine, he tallied five more hits with two doubles, two runs and three RBIs.
According to teammate Brooks Lee, former MLB star Kirby Puckett is the only other player to go 5-for-5 twice in the same season.
The following week, at Pepperdine, he went 4-for-5 and was pinch ran for in the eighth in the 16-4 win.
“It is unbelievable what he has done the last few weeks,” Coach Lee, who’s been with the program for 20 years, said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a hitter that dialed in. Nine out of every 10 balls he puts in play are right on the screws.”
This season, Yorke has 34 walks to 29 strikeouts to accompany his hit production.
Coach Greenspan, who has coached 30 MLB draftees in his seven full years, noted that walk-to-strikeout ratio is one of his key indicators of a good hitter. Moreso, 34 walks to 29 strikeouts is a numerical representation of Yorke’s uncanny plate discipline.
While “Big Joe” has a larger strike zone than most, his ability to see the ball forces pitchers to throw strikes, noted Coach Lee. As a 270-pound player and weak runner, bat-to-ball skills are essential to Yorke’s success and have earned him a spot as the number-three hitter.
Yorke can hit the ball to any part of the field. Cal Poly baseball declined to publicly share advanced stats, but when watching Yorke, fans can see him push the ball, pull it down the first baseline and slap it up the middle.
Strategically, placing Yorke behind Brooks Lee in the lineup adds another element of challenge for their opponents. Given that Brooks is one of the best hitters in the country, teams will intentionally walk him, overshift and play four outfielders, among a number of other things.
Coach Lee said Yorke makes them pay the price for allowing Brooks to get on. Along with this, if Brooks gets out, pitchers do not feel a sense of relief because Yorke puts together a strong at-bat that allows the heart of the order to follow.
“There is nothing selfish about his at-bats,” Coach Lee said. “It’s team-based, seeing pitches and just getting on base.”
What many fans don’t see from Yorke is his defensive excellence. He doesn’t have the buildup of someone who Coach Lee would say is a “very high-level defensive player,” but he is.
“He’s a middle infielder in a 280-pound body,” Lee said.
Greenspan expanded on the point, saying Yorke is vocal in the infield like a shortstop. He is always in the action, talking to the fielders and watching the pitcher and catcher.
“If you can’t defend, especially at first, then it is worthless how you can hit,” Yorke said.
At first base, almost every ball hit on the ground in the infield will come Yorke’s way. He has the highest fielding percentage (.996) of any starter on the team.
An offseason overhaul
Yorke’s success is not a lucky fate. He said he worked tirelessly over the summer to adjust his swing with volunteer assistant coach Justin Bridgman.
“We went through a lot of brutal days where I felt like I could not even make contact with the ball,” Yorke said about rebuilding his swing.
According to Yorke, the changes he made were: standing up straighter in the box, taking his bat off his shoulders and focusing on hand load and whip to create more power.
All that preparation has made it so he can go into the box with a clear mind.
While a team player, the one individual goal Yorke has is landing a name, image and likeness deal with Dr. Pepper.
“Dr. Pepper is the best drink in the world,” Yorke said. “If you throw a Dr. Pepper in front of me, I will slam it pretty quickly.”
With his new swing and the dream of a Dr. Pepper sponsorship, Yorke projects to be one of the pillars of Cal Poly’s offense going forward.