GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There are no little changes for a hitter, at least not for one whose youth teams worked out in his backyard batting cage.Joc Pederson is a student of hitting and loves working up a sweat while building up the layers of repetition necessary to create muscle memory.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There are no little changes for a hitter, at least not for one whose youth teams worked out in his backyard batting cage.
Joc Pederson is a student of hitting and loves working up a sweat while building up the layers of repetition necessary to create muscle memory. It seems significant that he has recently toned down the big leg kick that had become his trademark, but the proof will be what happens this season.
"That's something very small in what I have changed this offseason," Pederson said Monday. "From a normal point of view, that's what people notice, but there are other things, other ways I have made adjustments."
The Dodgers' center fielder is very much a work in progress as he approaches his 24th birthday. Pederson is quietly having a productive Spring Training after a rookie season in which he experienced almost every emotion imaginable.
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"I had my ups and my downs, learned a lot," said Pederson, who is hitting .353 in 12 spring games. "It was a good learning experience to get used to what the big leagues are like. The league definitely showed me some things I need to clean up and work on so that I'm able to stay here and compete and help my team win. It's just part of it."
To say Pederson had ups and downs is an understatement. He was on the Bryce Harper train the first two months of the season, combining an .390 on-base percentage with 17 homers in 184 at-bats, but he hit .176 with only nine home runs in 296 at-bats after June 4. Pederson has always struck out a lot, but it was glaring to see him finish the season hitting .210 with 170 strikeouts.
No one was more upset about it than Pederson.
"My expectations for myself are higher than anybody else's," he said. "There's stuff that I expect myself to be able to do, and if it's not, I'm going to find a way to get the job done."
Pederson's father, Stu, was an outfielder who got to the big leagues for eight games with the Dodgers in 1985. An older brother, Tyger, played college baseball and chased his dreams in an independent league last year. But it's Joc's oldest brother, Champ, who drives him.
Born with Down syndrome, Champ was on the field at Great American Ball Park during the Home Run Derby last year. He received a bear hug from Albert Pujols, whose daughter Isabella also has the genetic condition, while cheering on Joc.
"You know that he and other people with Down syndrome would do anything to just have a normal day where they could go out there and play," Pederson said. "You can never take this for granted. He's an everyday reminder of how fortunate I am, how blessed I am to play a game every day."
While the Dodgers were cruising to their third consecutive National League West title last September, they joined Pederson and New Era in marketing "Live like a Champ" caps. Proceeds go toward Best Buddies International, a nonprofit dedicated to finding and creating opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.
Pederson said the caps were so popular that they sold out.
"They had to make more because they're hot," he said. "A lot of people want them."
Lots of Dodgers fans blame Pederson's collapse on his enthusiastic participation in the Home Run Derby in Cincinnati, where Todd Frazier beat him in the final. But it was a 1-for-19 slump that started with a series against the Cardinals' loaded pitching staff that is the real line of demarcation. Pederson wasn't about to figure that a Jamaican vacation or an offseason spent on the couch would fix the holes in his swing.
Make no doubt about this. Pederson knows the stakes are high for the Dodgers, and especially for himself.
Dave Roberts, who is replacing Don Mattingly as manager, went out of his way a couple of weeks ago to make it clear that Pederson will play every day in center field. There shouldn't have been any question, given that they traded Matt Kemp to open the spot, but the Dodgers' front office raised eyebrows by acquiring center fielder Trayce Thompson from the White Sox in the offseason.
Pederson appreciated the vote of confidence, but he knows the onus remains on him to deliver. That's only right.
"I'm not entitled to anything," he said. "I could lose my job just like that. You have to be able to perform for your team."
Pederson was 2-for-3 in the Dodgers' 6-3 loss to the Mariners on Monday. He hustled down the line to beat out an infield single in his first at-bat off Hisashi Iwakuma, and the next time up, he hit a hard grounder through the left side of the infield. Pederson then got into a hole with some big swings against reliever Tony Zych and wound up striking out.
"The quality of at-bat after at-bat is getting better," Roberts said. "We're encouraged, and hopefully that's the trend that keeps happening."
Roberts is working to get to know all his players. He has seen Pederson be critical of himself, but he says he's feeling good about himself with Opening Day approaching.
Pederson migrated from the leadoff spot toward the bottom of the lineup last season, and that seems likely to be where he'll begin 2016 (he batted seventh Monday). He believes he's much better prepared for the long season ahead than he was as a rookie.
"The stress level, the travel, makes that six months in the big league season a grind," Pederson said. "You have to pace yourself. Energy-wise, you can't go into the cage and take 1,000 swings and expect to play the next seven days in a row. Understanding your body, understanding what works and sticking to that is really important."
Pederson is learning. What does he expect this season?
"We want to win a World Series, bring the World Series back to L.A.," Pederson said. "Individual goals don't matter. It's about team goals, the overall team."
If you're going to live like a champ, you might as well be one.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.