There have been thousands of articles written about the Dodgers this year. I don’t blame you for being glossy eyed reading about the Dodgers, as I feel the same way. They are historically good, and have been one of the best teams in the NL the past few years. Part of this sustainable movement has been spurred by the influx of young talent the Dodgers have been able to develop in recent years. However, possibly the most anticipated prospect out of the young group of budding stars that were called up, has fallen into obscurity, and now finds himself penciled into the AAA lineup. After a brutal month of August, Joc Pederson’s young career may be in jeopardy.
For people just getting into baseball during this new period of resurgence, and for all the new Dodgers fans who have recently become fans in the past two months, you may not know this, but Joc Pederson was one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Before the 2014 season, Pederson was ranked the #34 prospect in baseball by Baseball America, and a year later he sat at #8, three spots after fellow Dodger Corey Seager, and Houston shortstop Carlos Correa. Right now, their midseason list has Victor Robles at #8, who is a consensus elite prospect. Joc Pederson was once an elite prospect, and it wasn’t that long ago. He was an 11th round pick out of high school, despite not possessing an elite tool. Baseball America, at the time Pederson was drafted, said “see him on the right day and you are seeing a borderline five-tool high school prospect”. And all Pederson did from there was improve his stock and rocket up prospect rankings. From 2011 to 2014, he put up wRC+’s of 148, 137, 155, and 164 each respective year. In 2014 he slashed a monstrous .303/.435/.582, with 33 home runs and 30 stolen bases and an 18.1% walk rate. Were there warning signs? Sure. Joc had some trouble making contact in the offense-heavy PCL, running a 26.9% strikeout rate. Yet, Kris Bryant of the Cubs also had this relatively minor concern in 2014, running a 28.6% strikeout rate. The thought with both is that, you can’t do what they do offensively without strikeouts. But now one is a perennial MVP candidate and the other was just demoted in favor of 36 year old Curtis Granderson (who is having a great season in his own right). Anyway, by the time Pederson was up full-time, he made a substantial impact. He slashed .230/.364/.487 with 20 home runs, good for a 138 wRC+ and even finished second behind Todd Frazier in the 2015 Home Run Derby. He was striking out at a 29.2% clip, but still walking 15.8% of the time. His power, ability to take a walk, and passable defense in centerfield made him an envious asset to have. But he had two stolen bases. And the defense was passable, and not solidly above-average as we were led to believe. It looked like he was completely selling out for power, and not the .260-.270 hitter we all envisioned him to be. And then, of course, he had an infamously bad second half, slashing .178/.317/.300. The league had adjusted to him, but he hadn’t adjusted back, putting up a lowly 80 wRC+ and tallying only six more home runs. The walk and strikeout rates remained roughly the same, but his quality of contact rating had cratered. His Hard% dropped from 41.5% to 30.3%, and his game had become so extreme that he had no other supporting tools to support him when he struggled.
And that’s what I’ve somewhat come to realize with Joc. When he does well, he does really well. And after an ok first half to begin last year, Joc put up a 143 wRC+ the rest of the way, slashing .260/.380/.520 and kicking in 12 home runs. Over the course of the season he even ended up with 1 DRS in centerfield, which seems insignificant, but a good bat with passable defense in a premium position is extremely valuable. Joc had quietly become a post-hype guy after much of the huge influx of young talent found immediate success over the past four or so years. It finally looked like Joc Pederson had arrived. He was even considered a pretty substantial sleeper before the season started in fantasy, and had a lot of optimism in his approach at the beginning of the season. But this season has been a lost season for Pederson. Between a groin injury and a concussion, Joc can’t seem to do anything right, the most worrisome being his absolutely putrid fielding which stands at a lowly -12 DRS. His career mark? -14 DRS. That’s 85.7% from this year. I honestly think it could be the groin injury, as nobody falls off that fast. And it could be the paparazzi in me, but it also looks like he’s gained some weight, and did receive some criticism of that during the offseason. Right now everything seems to be against Joc Pederson. Here’s what’s not against him.
From April-July, Joc ran a 120 wRC+, slashing .243/.353/.472. So why does this signal any sort of improvement? A 120 wRC+ is really good, even if he’s destined for a corner outfield spot where he could potentially be above-average. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is his strikeout rate fell to 21.8%, which is roughly league average now. It’s a very manageable number given the state of today’s game, and is substantially below his career figure of 26.8%. But of course, because of this season, his career K% is lower than it was at the beginning of the season, so he’s improved even more than the numbers show us right now. His walk rate, strangely, has fallen quite a bit this year given his career numbers. But again, what the numbers show us right now is actually a bit worse than at the beginning of the season. From April-July he was still walking 11.5%, a well-above average bordering great walk rate, but significantly below a career average of roughly ~15%, which is an excellent walk rate. The cut in strikeouts, though, is huge for a guy like Pederson. Improving rate stats is one of the things that stand out the most when looking at breakout players, such as Justin Smoak or Daniel Murphy.
So why hasn’t Pederson taken the Smoak/Murphy step to the next level? Well, he’s not hitting the ball like he needs to be. You won’t hear me say that about too many players, but when Joc isn’t hitting, he’s just not very useful. And he won’t hit for average, so he needs to hit for power, and a lot of it, especially if it isn’t buoyed by an elite walk rate. His 32.6% hard hit rate would rank 97th in baseball if he was qualified, sandwiched between J.T. Realmuto and Robbie Grossman, who are fine players, but not world beaters. Even if we take out August, he’d still end up tied with Nick Markakis (33.8%), and 89th overall. That’s not good. He went on the DL with groin injury on April 24th, and I figured maybe before that he’d be sitting a little higher, but no. Through April 24th he still had a 33.3% hard hit rate.
So, we take a look at Statcast data next. This year he’s averaging 90.4 MPH average exit velocity (minimum 150 batted balls), which ranks #23. That’s pretty good. He’s sandwiched between Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman, who are two of the best young players in the game. So, what we have at this point is that Joc Pederson hits the ball hard on average. And balls 95+ MPH on average? Joc is at 42.6%, and Harper is right behind him at 42.5%. They rank #44 and #45 respectively. Right now, there is a huge disparity between his Statcast velocities, and his hard hit%. There are three options; none are right, one is right, or both are right.
Clearly both are right, because I’m a generally poor writer and not subtle at all in my interludes. And I may have been withholding information to keep you interested in an article about Joc Pederson. And what information might that be? Well, definitionally, hard hit% and average exit velocity are actually completely different. Hard hit% takes into consideration “hang time, trajectory, and landing spot” (via Fangraphs), but disregards average exit velocity. So I decided to dive into some more Statcast data, this time average launch angle, to see what I could find. And it may seem like splitting hairs at first, but it’s important.
2015: avg launch angle = 11.9 degrees
2016: avg launch angle = 12.1 degrees
2017 avg launch angle = 10.6 degrees
A 1.5 degree drop off doesn’t seem large at all. But, it’s a decrease of approximately ~12.4%, which is a big deal. And if you can imagine what a protractor looks like, and extrapolate a 1.5 difference over an entire baseball field, that small drop off all of a sudden doesn’t seem so small. I didn’t want to use straight GB/FB/LD breakdowns because I didn’t think he had a big enough sample size for batted balls this year, but he’s hitting 46.8% ground balls compared to approximately ~42% for his career. It’s no big surprise a decrease in launch angle is going to mean more ground balls, but that also explains the hard hit%. For comparison, Bryce Harper has very comparable exit velocities and has an average launch angle of 13.2 degrees. He does not hit half of his balls on the ground, but rather 40.2%.
I had somewhat of a hunch; that I’d look at Pederson’s pull percentage and see it at a career low, but it’s actually at a career high at 48.9%, well above his career 43.8%. He’d be tied for #10 in baseball with Yasiel Puig. Looking at the leaderboards, there are very few successful players who have a pull percentage higher than Pederson. Ideally you want to be between 44-46%. And if he was at ~43% coming into the year, we can kind of see how the picture is coming together. Either Pederson, or the Dodgers seemed to be making an effort to get him into the 44-46% range, but he’s been a little too pull happy. I don’t think he’s had to compensate for anything (a popular theory for pull-heavy hitters) because of his exit velocity, so I think it was a deliberate decision to pull more often.
The past few years we’ve seen an increase in a couple big things; launch angle, and pull percentage. Of the candidates in baseball that would have benefitted the most, Pederson was one of them. I believe Pederson is legitimately trying to change his profile. I also believe it isn’t going very well. He’s not deliberately trying to hit ground balls, I promise. And there’s so much in his contact rates that look fantastic. I started writing about this like four hours ago and keep looking at his profile. It is bizarre. He’s career best in almost everything. He’s swinging less at pitches out of the zone at 25% (26.4% career). He’s swinging at pitches in the zone 68.4% of the time (64.5% career). He’s making contact on pitches outside of the zone 61.6% of the time (55.9% career). He’s making contact on pitches in the zone 84.8% of the time (81.2% career). And his contact percentage is a ludicrous 77.2% (career 71.9%). He’s been thrown strikes to him at the same rate Andrew Benintendi is basically (42.8% for Pederson, 42.3% for Benintendi), despite them being vastly different hitters. One of the strangest, perhaps maybe noteworthy stat is his first strike percentage which sits at a low 51.9%. Well what’s wrong with that? His career is at 56.5%, and last year it was 59.1%. That’s a 7.2% decrease after increasing the year before. Previously, pitchers were taking advantage of Pederson’s patience by trying to steal a strike to start him off. Well, he’s responded by being more aggressive (similar to Joey Votto’s tendencies at the beginning of the year), and pitchers have responded by throwing him less strikes on the first pitch.
The graph presented here shows a graphic of the frequency of pitch locations. 36% of all the pitches he sees are in those two bottom most, and furthest from the strike zone.
And here you can see the averages against those locations. Pederson is clearly a poor hitter in the highest frequency locations showing he can’t lay off bad pitches right now. Teams are attacking him with fastballs out of the zone. He has a -7 value on fastballs this year. If he qualified, there would only be eight players worse against fastballs this year.
This is his chart from 2016. Clearly still bad in those two zones (and almost identical frequencies, it wasn’t worth attaching the chart), but he crushed pitches in the middle of the zone and lower. This year, he’s only been hitting the outer half of the plate and higher in the zone, whereas last year you can clearly see only two weak spots in the zone. It seems like this year he’s tried to work on the zones where he was weak last year, and his rookie year. Basically what’s happened is by trying to get better at higher pitches he’s deteriorated in the lower half of the zone and hasn’t been able to figure it out.
This is the main component, I believe, in a long list of smaller issues for Pederson this year. However, there are a lot of really positive indicators and it’s not hard to squint and see a still productive player here. Stunningly he’s been at least average, and generally above average at almost everything before, just not at the same time. This year he is struggling, yes, but he was actually really good for the majority of it still, and terrible for one month. He was good not great, but under the hood it looked like there were a lot of changes, or changes in progress, that quite hadn’t worked out. The average could definitely come. He’s made some major overhauls in his raw contact and plate discipline this year and is definitely not as free of a swinger as I thought. Even his quality of contact has been good. His problem is he needs to be able to hit that low pitch again, and be able to elevate that pitch. He’s proven to be far more successful in the lower half of the zone, and it’s much easier to do damage there than at the top of the zone where it’s difficult to elevate, which is likely what we’re seeing this year. It seems like his mediocrity at the bottom of the zone, against fastballs especially, has stunted what started to look like real growth and development from a player who “we know who he is at this point”. Seems like he was trying to transition from the extreme “all-or-nothing” guy to a more complete offensive profile. And he has time to figure it out. He’s 25. I think the Dodgers see this and know this. A stint in AAA could be really good for him, because I don’t think he’s a broken player. One of these years he’ll put it all together. Until then, I’m cheering for him.