In right situation, Joc may be free-agent steal

January 10th, 2021

Let’s take a look at three free-agent outfielders and their batting lines since 2015 -- with one crucial caveat. This is against right-handed pitchers only.

: 2,567 PA, .273/.337/.460 (114 wRC+), 103 HR
: 2,101 PA, .239/.348/.505 (129 wRC+), 121 HR
: 2,307 PA, .271/.354/.483 (129 wRC+), 106 HR

Springer is arguably the top position player available this offseason. Ozuna is considered a premium power bat. By comparison, Pederson has been a bit of an afterthought, despite being the youngest of the three. (He’ll turn 29 in April).

Why? Some of it is defense, since unlike Springer, Pederson is not really a viable center fielder at this point, although he can capably handle a corner spot. A lot of it is about recent performance, with Springer and Ozuna playing at their best in 2020, while Pederson put up the worst numbers of his career. Of course, that was in a shortened season in which he played 43 games; Pederson rebounded for a .991 OPS during the Dodgers’ championship-winning playoff run.

But the other part of the equation is that Springer and Ozuna are right-handed batters, who naturally perform better against lefties. Their overall numbers are superior to those above. Pederson, who swings lefty, is perhaps MLB’s most extreme platoon bat -- and one of the most extreme in the game’s history.

It’s a factor that complicates his case as a free agent and raises questions about how his next team will deploy him. Let’s break it down.

He hasn’t hit lefties

Here are Pederson’s career platoon splits, including the 18 games he played when the Dodgers first called him up in September 2014. Keep in mind, a 100 wRC+ is the park-adjusted league average.

Vs. right-handers: .238/.349/.501 (128 wRC+)
Vs. left-handers: .191/.266/.310 (59 wRC+)

Since 2015, among the 281 batters who have come to the plate at least 1,000 times against righties, Pederson is tied with Springer for 28th in wRC+. But among the 287 batters with at least 350 PA against lefties, Pederson ranks 281st.

We can put that enormous gap in further context with the help of Baseball-Reference's tOPS+. It’s a metric that sounds wonky but is actually pretty simple, comparing a particular split to the player’s total. The lower the tOPS+, the worse the player performed in that split, in relation to how he did overall.

Lowest career tOPS+ vs. LHP
Min. 350 PA vs. LHP (past 60 seasons)

  1. Rich Becker (1993-2000): 27 tOPS+
  2. Wally Backman (1980-93): 33 tOPS+
  3. Tim Flannery (1979-89): 35 tOPS+
  4. Jimmie Hall (1963-70): 36 tOPS+
  5. David Dellucci (1997-2009): 43 tOPS+
  6. John Lowenstein (1970-85): 43 tOPS+

7) Joc Pederson (2014-20): 45 tOPS+

Few players have struggled more against left-handed pitchers than Pederson, especially in comparison with his success against righties. And his underlying numbers don’t suggest it’s a fluke, as Pederson’s career .269 expected wOBA against lefties is among the lowest in MLB in that span.

But there’s another element in play here.

He’s barely gotten a chance

This is something of a chicken-and-the-egg situation. Has Pederson not faced lefties because he can’t hit them, or has he not hit them in part because he rarely faces them?

It’s worth noting here that Pederson did just fine against southpaws in the Minors, batting .273/.385/.428 in 605 plate appearances at that level, including rehab assignments. But as a rookie in 2015, that line sank to .216/.295/.397.

After Pederson made 23 starts with a lefty on the mound that first year, the Dodgers almost entirely stopped using him in those situations. In the past five seasons, he has made a grand total of 28 such starts, netting 277 plate appearances against southpaws (including just 12 in 2020).

During that time, no hitter with at least 1,500 total plate appearances has gotten a higher percentage of them against righties than Pederson (86.9%). No hitter with at least 50 total homers launched a higher percentage of them against righties (97.1%).

“That time will come when I get to start against lefties -- obviously not here, not now,” Pederson told The Orange County Register in 2019. “I can’t worry about what is to come. I know I can hit them. I haven’t really faced them in like three years, so I’m not really worried about it.”

In that story, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman discussed how handling Minor League lefties doesn’t necessarily equate to handling Major League lefties. Then again, manager Dave Roberts may have summed up the issue by saying, “That’s part of the blessing and the curse of playing for a team with so much talent.”

The Dodgers have finished first in the NL West in every year of Pederson’s career, and won the World Series in 2020, in large part because of their enviable depth. This past season, with righties Mookie Betts, A.J. Pollock, Chris Taylor, Justin Turner and Enrique Hernández among those available to start in the corner outfield or at DH against lefties, there was little incentive for Roberts to give Pederson a shot.

What happens next?

Theoretically, there should be plenty of interest in Pederson, given that the Steamer projections have him as a 20-top outfielder in wRC+ (118) and top 30 in WAR (2.4) next season. Pederson may not be a star, but he can be a solid contributor on a good team. On the other hand, some clubs with corner-outfield needs already have filled those, as Kyle Schwarber signed with the Nationals, Robbie Grossman with the Tigers, Adam Eaton with the White Sox and David Dahl with the Rangers. Other lefty-hitting corner bats continue to compete for attention on the free-agent market, including Michael Brantley, Eddie Rosario and Nomar Mazara.

The Astros, Braves and Cardinals are among those with outfield openings who would benefit from Pederson’s power, but his extreme splits make it harder to discern a destination. Is he now pigeonholed -- fairly or not -- as a pure platoon bat?

Perhaps some team out there will give Pederson his long-awaited shot to establish himself as an everyday player. His historically tilted track record stands in the way.