Joc Pederson’s MVP Season

Joc Pederson has had one heck of a 2014. The center fielder has blown away the already-high expectations placed before him this year, leading all of Triple-A in home runs, on-base percentage, on-base plus slugging, walks and runs scored. To be fair, his spot atop the list in some of those categories is partially thanks to the simple fact that he’s been in Triple-A all season — and playing half his games in the bandbox at Albuquerque —  but it’s still pretty astounding stuff.

All told, Pederson owns a .304/.434/.590 slash, with 33 homers and 30 steals, making him the first player with a 30/30 season in the Pacific Coast League since Frank Demaree accomplished the feat way back in 1934. He is also the first player this author knows of who has given away his car as a ballpark promotion.

We all knew Pederson was good, as he was a consensus top-50 prospect before the season, and found himself in the No. 2 spot on the organizational top 10 list here at FanGraphs. Looking back at what Marc Hulet wrote in March, that Pederson “just keeps getting better and better,” it’s fair to say that trend has continued since the day those words were written. Just yesterday, Pederson was named the PCL’s Most Valuable Player for 2014.

A guy that used to be looked at as a second-division regular or a utility-knife fourth outfielder is now clearly one of the top prospects in all of baseball, as his tools just keep getting louder. Let’s take a look at how exactly Pederson has increased his stock to such a degree, as well as my impressions from watching him play.

Pederson hadn’t encountered all that much trouble against left-handed pitching in his career, until he reached Double-A. He hadn’t shown much power against southpaws, but he was still a very solid on-base guy, putting together a .330/.435/.464 line against same-handed pitching in 2012 at High-A Rancho Cucamonga.

Then came 2013 and the corresponding jump to Double-A. While Double-A is commonly known as the level where a player’s weaknesses are exposed, often for the first time, no one could have expected Pederson to hit just .200/.299/.269 against lefties in a full season at Double-A.

The biggest adjustment Pederson has made this season, and the main reason for his skyrocketing prospect status, has been his dominance against southpaws. Pederson has turned a serious deficiency in his game into a major positive, shredding lefties to the tune of .302/.425/.604, for an OPS of 1.029, even better than his 1.024 OPS against right-handers.

This gave me some extra excitement regarding seeing Pederson play in person, as I got to see first-hand how the 22-year-old handles lefty pitching. With Rudy Owens on the bump — not exactly the toughest of southpaws, but still — Pederson wasted no time getting comfortable, as he got his hands around on an inside fastball and laced it down the right-field line for a double on the very first pitch he saw. On his next trip to the plate, he ripped the second pitch for a scorching liner right back up the middle, into the shift and into the glove of Jonathan Villar.

Pederson showed his youth a bit in his third at-bat, striking out by reaching for two straight fastballs up and in. His final trip to the plate in the 8th inning ended with a called strike three, but actually told me quite a bit about Pederson. The pitch was essentially the same one he had reached for twice to strike out in his previous at-bat — and it wasn’t actually a strike, despite the umpire’s call — so it was very good to see Pederson make the in-game adjustment necessary to lay off that pitch, even if it’s still a strikeout in the stat line.

In addition to hitting lefties, another area where Pederson has shown significant improvement is his ability to hit the ball with authority to the opposite field. He has nine homers to left field this year, after leaving the yard the other way just twice last season. As he learns to use the whole field even better, he will make it much harder for opposing teams to cover him with a shift.

It’s hard to get too much of an impression of an outfielder’s defense from just one game, but Pederson didn’t appear to have the quickest first step. He makes up for it with his plus speed, and by taking very good routes to the ball, but it seemed to take him a moment to decide where he was going. I’ve heard people say that he has plus arm strength, but I’d just grade him out at slightly above-average for a center fielder.

As Marc said this spring, Pederson just keeps getting better and better. Thing is, any reasonable person expected that improvement to eventually slow down. That moment hasn’t come yet. As for his fantasy value, Pederson likely won’t be much of a factor in September due to the fact that the Dodgers already have five outfielders on the major-league roster. Something tells me the Dodgers work something out in the offseason to get Pederson in the lineup on opening day in 2015. He’ll undoubtedly be a trendy sleeper pick in fantasy drafts next spring, and rightly so.

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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“The biggest adjustment Pederson has made this season, and the main reason for his skyrocketing prospect status, has been his dominance against southpaws. Pederson has turned a serious deficiency in his game into a major positive, shredding lefties to the tune of .302/.425/.604, for an OPS of 1.029, even better than his 1.024 OPS against right-handers.”

Since his overall OPS is also 1.024, I guess he hasn’t faced many southpaws?

And Donnie actually hints that he might have switched Puig for Pederson?

“Since June 1 … I think it’s like two (home runs) and 19 ribbies,” Mattingly said, his accuracy betraying some behind-the-scenes discussion. “If this had happened at the beginning of the season, we probably would have sent him back. You never know.”

Really? Is Mattingly serious?

“You think about it — you never know, right?” he said to that. “If Joc Pederson is down there hitting home runs every day, would you have done something? You may have thought that would be the best thing at that point.”