Joc Pederson: Now What?
Mike Trout is just the absolute worst. Before Trout, young players could come up and develop at their own pace, without the added pressure to immediately be the best player in the world. Now, when top prospects come up, they’re expected to dominate, and any sign of growing pains is met with the “b” word (bust.). Carlos Correa also isn’t helping.
Joc Pederson, another highly touted prospect, seemed to run the gamut of emotions in 2015. He somehow managed to both wildly exceeding and fall short of expectations. It was a tale of two haves for Pederson. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In the first half, Pederson’s power and discipline were on display as his .851 OPS carried him to an All-Star selection, national adoration, and New Era commercials. In the second half, Pederson hit .178 and slugged .300, placing him among the worst hitters in baseball. This spring, Pederson has become a divisive player, with some pegging him as an option to bounce back to All-Star status and some believing he could be a rough April away from another stint in Triple A.
In dynasty leagues it’s all about projecting. Pederson will turn only 24 years old in the 2016 season, so it’s very premature to write him off or to guarantee that his second half is indicative of what he will be as a big leaguer. However, it would be helpful to know whether he’ll be closer to first half Joc or second half Joc moving forward.
Pederson made it look easy out of the gate, putting up .298/.397/.596 through April. Yes, 77 plate appearances are hardly a large enough sample, but the .298 ISO was definitely tasty, and a glimpse of the power potential Pederson possessed (boom, alliteration). Pederson followed up his blistering start with ISOs of .283 and .273 in May and June, respectively, both obscene for any player, let alone someone in his first full season. Although he got off to a great start, Pederson still suffered from high strikeout totals, draining his batting average. Strikeouts have been a problem for Pederson, even throughout his minor league career. However, as Chris Davis has proven, you’re allowed to strike out if you also consistently hit the ball really, really far.
All told, Pederson posted a first half ISO of .257 and 137 wRC+, placing him in the top 25 in all of baseball for both statistics. The stellar first half numbers earned Pederson a trip to the Mid-Summer Classic, and if that is where the season ended, it would have been a storybook rookie campaign. Sadly for Pederson, there were three months left, and Murphy’s Law can turn storybooks into nightmares.
The true downfall of Pederson’s rookie season came in July, where a measly 96 plate appearances were enough to send him in an inescapable tailspin. The month produced a slashline of .169/.229/.258 (I’m sorry you had to read that). Even in desperate times, Pederson has always had exceptional plate discipline, producing excellent walk rates. This was not the case in July, as he contributed a meager 4.2 percent walk rate. Add that total to his 32.3 percent strikeout rate, crunch the numbers, and math will tell you that you have a very, very poor hitter.
The brutal July sent Pederson to a final second half line of .178/.317/.300, with a .122 ISO and 79 wRC+. His batting average was the worst among players with at least 200 plate appearances. His slugging percentage was fifth worst in baseball, slightly worse than known powerhouse Michael Bourn. Another troubling sign was that Pederson popped up in the infield 22.6 percent of the time. Coupled with his 28.8 percent second half strikeout rate, that means that over half of Pederson’s plate appearances ended in easy outs. It’s hard to point at his .262 BABIP and expect regression back to the .300 league average when so many of his outs came from pop ups.
One potential reason for Pederson’s second half slide: he just didn’t take advantage of pitches in the zone. In the first half, he saw more pitches in the zone and did damage on such pitches, en route to the .257 ISO.
After such a stellar the first half, Pederson predictably saw fewer pitches in the zone.
When he did see good pitches, he took advantage less and that played a major role in his lack of second half productivity, and while he did hit some pitches thrown down the middle, every other location gave Pederson trouble.
It’s quite possible that the issue of Pederson’s second half slide can be chalked up to timing and mechanics. Once he started to see fewer pitches in the zone, rare pitches to hit could almost fool a young, inexperienced player even with Pederson’s excellent plate discipline. Barry Bonds made pitchers pay for that one pitch in the zone per game, but it’s obviously unfair to hold anyone to that standard.
Additionally, Pederson’s mechanics did not allow for him to be fooled. In adopting a high leg kick, Pederson may have had more trouble with the unexpected and not being able to have time for adjustments.
Thus far in Spring Training, Pederson has unveiled a new approach, most notably a new leg kick, likely with the intent of shortening his swing, allowing for more wiggle room if a pitch fools him.
Full disclosure: the homer resulting from the swing pictured above came off of Jered Weaver and an 80 mph fastball, but still.
After Pederson’s dismal second half, it’s hard to be all smiles and rainbows and predict with certainty that he will bounce back to the player we thought he would be entering 2015, or the player we saw glimpses of in the first half. That said, he’s already shown a willingness to change things up, work to get better, and simplify his approach. Additionally, one of the reasons Pederson was such a highly touted prospect, was his ability to steal bases. In 2015, he stole only four bases in 11 attempts. Those numbers fly in the face of his minor league totals, where from 2012-2014, he stole 26, 31 and 30 bases, respectively across three levels. It’s very possible that those numbers increase with a year of major league comfort under his belt.
Dodger manager Dave Roberts has stated that Joc Pederson is the starting center fielder. While this seems like a good sign, anyone that has seen an angry NFL head coach press conference will tell you, “X is our starting quarterback”, is usually preceded by a swift change at any hint of trouble. In Los Angeles, that would mean a shift to Enrique Hernandez or Trayce Thompson, neither choice possessing anywhere close to Pederson’s upside.
For now, Pederson is the center fielder for the Dodgers. It’s a situation worth monitoring, but it’s also probably the last time you’ll be able to pick him up at a discount. If the change in mechanics is the answer, Pederson is likely to be a nearly untouchable dynasty asset moving forward.