Pederson hopes new approach turns fortunes
Exit velocity down more than 5 mph since July 1
In many ways, Joc Pederson is the embodiment of baseball's new breed of power hitter. Pederson strikes out a ton -- 29.4 percent, fifth most in baseball -- but he makes up for it with excellent on-base skills, ranking fifth with a 15.6 percent walk rate, and obviously he's got the elite power that we all saw on display when he finished second at the Home Run Derby.
Of course, it's been a rough stretch for the young Dodgers center fielder. Even with a homer in Thursday's 10-3 loss to Cincinnati, Pederson has hit just .167/.294/.272 since July 1, giving him a Weighted Runs Created Plus score of 66 that makes him 34 percentage points below league average, which is set to 100. The conclusion seems simple: Pederson has reached the tipping point of strikeouts, with contact problems weighing him down more than his power can prop him up. Right?
It's a theory that makes sense, but perhaps it's surprising to see that it's not actually rooted in fact. Over the past two months, Pederson isn't actually striking out much more than he ever did. From Opening Day through June 30, Pederson struck out 29.0 percent of the time. Since then, that's jumped all the way to… 30 percent of the time. He's not swinging that much more more (42.3 percent through June 30, 43.3 percent after), and there's been no change in his contact rate (hitting the ball on 65.7 percent of swings through June 30, 65.2 percent since).
Instead, for Pederson, it's not about swings-and-misses. The real problem is something far simpler, but something we've only recently been able to measure with Statcast™. He's just not hitting the ball as hard as he once was, as this exit velocity chart clearly shows:
Through June 30, Pederson's average exit velocity of 94.76 mph was one of the best in baseball. Since then, it's dropped more than 5 mph down to 89.32 mph, an enormous fall, and a huge part of why Pederson's productivity has disappeared.
So, what's causing this? Fatigue over a rookie's first full season? Maybe. The dreaded curse of the Home Run Derby? Almost certainly not, because Pederson was already on a .192/.339/.343 slide in the 30 days leading up to that. More than anything, it looks like pitchers have adjusted, and Pederson has yet to adjust back. For example, we can see that he's seeing more sliders now than he had been, by a jump of seven percentage points, and Pederson's .348 slugging percentage against the slider is the lowest of any pitch type he's seen this year.
But we can also see that one of the seemingly unchanged numbers from earlier -- contact rate -- is working against Pederson. As we said, in both parts of his season, Pederson has had a 65 percent rate of contact on his swings. All contact, however, is not created equal, and the issue that's vexing him is easily understood with the following simple numbers:
Contact rate on pitches outside the zone
Through June 30: 44.6 percent
Since July 1: 52.9 percent
Contact rate on pitches inside the zone
Through June 30: 77.8 percent
Since July 1: 72.0 percent
That, in a nutshell, is the issue: Pederson has traded good contact for bad, as nearly every hitter has a harder time putting good contact on balls outside the strike zone as within it -- and pitchers know that, which is why we're seeing such top names like Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel atop the pitching exit velocity charts.
So is there reason to believe that Pederson can turn this around? He hasn't yet, not with just four hits in August. But the prescription, at least, is simple: Prove to pitchers that he won't go after (and make contact with) the bad breaking stuff they want him to hit, and Pederson will start seeing the fastballs in the zone that he can drive again. Easier said than done, obviously, but at least a path to renewed success.
There's hope that Pederson has already working on this, actually. He had drawn 12 walks in 32 plate appearances over nine games (seven starts) headed into Thursday including back-to-back three-walk games. Pederson's previous 12 walks had taken 129 plate appearances and well over a month. As he told local reporters earlier this month, shortening his swing and improving his plate discipline are a big priority as he attempts to reverse his slide. It's not the same thing as hitting homers, which Pederson has done just twice since the end of June, but it does show that he's trying to lay off the bad pitches.
It's an attempt at an adjustment, and for a young player, that's all baseball is. There's adjustments, and adjusting to the adjustments. Having seen what Pederson is capable of, it's worth it for the Dodgers to let him work through it.