The last new moon before spring training has passed, as baseball fans the world over yearn for the game’s return. Over the next 60 days, the daily musings and conversations among fans will be flush with optimism and excitement, as the layout of the roster begins to unfold with familiar faces returning and new faces emerging. The Dodgers figure to have their share of both this year, as new acquisitions and youth are brought into the fold to join a team that was 2-wins shy of a World Series appearance.
Much has been said about Turner, Hill and Jansen and for good reason, but young Joc Pederson somehow silently showed encouraging signs of progression in 2016, hitting one of the bigger Dodger playoff shots in recent memory and looks primed to repeat on a stellar sophomore season.
Pederson was a highly regarded prospect as he roared through the minors, jumping from the Dodgers 25th best prospect in 2010 after he was drafted in the 11th round, to #9 the following season. He didn’t stop there, reaching #1 on the Dodgers prospect list and #8 in Baseball America’s top 100 by 2014.
Often referred to as a “three-true outcomes” hitter, Joc was notorious for the bulk of his at bats ending in one of three ways: a walk, a dinger or a strikeout. That rang true during his rookie year as 50% of his plate appearances ended in of those three outcomes. Joc’s performance struggled something fierce down the stretch, as he slashed just .186/.326/.350 from June 1st until season end, striking out 111 times.
Joc came into 2016 with a brand new coaching staff and a renewed focus and a determination to prove that his second half rookie slump was just a speed bump.
One of Joc’s biggest changes from 2015 to 2016 was his contact rate. Joc made tremendous strides between 2015 and 2016, increasing his contact rates across the board. His O-contact rate, or his rate of contact on pitches outside the zone, rose from 49% to 60.9% and his Z-contact rate, or his of contact on pitches within the zone, rose from 77% to 84.2%.
Making more contact is good but doing it in the form of line drives is even better. Joc’s line-drive rate jumped nearly 5 full percentage points, from 15.8% in 2015 to 20.6% in 2016. And to top it off, he decreased his swinging strike percentage, from 14% to 10.3%.
More and contact and higher rates of it will lead to good things, and what better way to show this off than looking at some of Pederson’s heat maps courtesy of Fangraphs. The first maps are the difference between his contact rate in 2015 and 2016. Joc made tremendous improvement getting around on inside pitches, while also improving on pitches up and away. (2015 on left, 2016 on right).
The second maps show Joc’s slugging percentage. While the color scheme looks quite similar, notice the different numbers between the two. If a pitcher missed down the pipe, Joc made them pay considerably more in 2016 than in 2015. Also, his improved contact rate up and away helped him begin to lift and drive the ball when it was up, something he struggled with in 2015. (2015 on left, 2016 on right)
Now baseball is a multifaceted game that requires both offense and defense. Joc also took a step forward in the center field as well. As he began to get the lay of the land, he looked more efficient and effective in the outfield. This eye test was reinforced statistically, as he showed an improvement in UZR (-3.9 to 1.5) and Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS (-3 to +1).
There’s a little bit of a myth about Joc’s performance with runners on base, however. The myth is that he performs terribly when he has runners on or in scoring position. The fact is he hasn’t had many chances to prove himself. He’s only 4/17 with the bases loaded, but that includes a double and a homerun. Many also say he has no situational hitting skill and has a tendency to swing from his toes. Well, he has a career wRC+ of 108 and 110 with runners on and in scoring position, respectively, and his strike-out rate decreases from 30.8% when the bases are empty to 24.6% and 24.9% with runners on and in scoring position.
Part of the myth, however, that he struggles in higher leverage opportunities shows to have some truth to it. Though “clutch” can’t be properly quantified, Joc has shown a propensity to struggle when he’s needed most. However, this homerun has to be up there with some of the Dodger great playoff moments any day.
Joc has some potential for further improvement as he goes into his last season before entering arbitration. He was once a stolen base threat in the minors, albeit with a spotty success rate of 73%. He did successfully steal 116 total, including becoming the first AAA player to reach a 30HR/30SB season. If he were able to incorporate his base running ability into his game plan, he could achieve a bit more value.
In addition, some of the improvements he made in 2016 just need to stick. If he can maintain the gains he has made in contact rate, he’ll remain an incredibly valuable center fielder until he reaches free agency. And if he can continue to maintain a career-average 120 wRC+ while running slightly above average defense in center field, everyone from the stands to the office would gladly accept it. He likely won’t be the franchise corner stone that Corey Seager may be, but he’s a necessary piece that will contribute dearly to the championship hopes of a team that has continually fallen just short.