Joc Pederson is more consistent thanks to improved contact rates

After last year’s second-half collapse, some wondered if Joc Pederson was truly the Dodgers’ long-term center fielder. This year, he’s answering that question with an emphatic “YES”, and he’s doing it by being a more consistent hitter.

Pederson is slashing .258/.352/.518/.870 on the season with 18 home runs, 24 doubles and an excellent 132 wRC+. This is a much more welcome version of Pederson than the one from last season that started off on fire before going sub-zero. It’s also a little surprising, seeing how much time he spent on his swing over the winter and in Spring Training.

It was such a hot topic that Chad wrote about Pederson’s swing three times before the season started.

March 3

“Not many issues regarding an individual player was discussed more in 2015 than Joc Pederson‘s swing and approach, especially as he begun to struggle immensely in the second half. In response to his slump, the Dodgers and Joc promised changes heading into 2016, and early signs in Spring Training have seen them deliver on that promise, according to J.P. Hoornstra of the Los Angeles Daily News.

“When Pederson reported for batting practice during the Dodgers’ first full-squad workout Thursday, the thud of his front foot was gone. In its place: a modest, measured step forward. The path of his bat to the baseball was more compact. It’s the swing of a man who is trying to cut down on strikeouts and isn’t worried about hitting the ball out of the park every time he bats.

“I’ve been working hard this offseason to work on becoming a better hitter, hitting more line drives and using the whole field,” Pederson said. “I think I’m gifted that the power will be there. I’m just trying to hit balls on the barrel.”

The swing is a byproduct of a full winter’s work with Johnny Washington, the same coach who’s worked with Pederson in seasons past. Washington spent last year on the coaching staff of the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers. He was recently hired to be the hitting coach for the Double-A San Antonio Missions, a San Diego Padres affiliate.

New Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward also dropped in on occasion to monitor Pederson’s progress.”

March 7

“New hitting coach Turner Ward apparently transformed Paul Goldschmidt into the monster he is today, and he’s a hitting coach in the major leagues, so he knows a lot more about hitting than me. But whatever these changes are supposed to help Joc with, they don’t seem to make much sense.

Joc’s main problems last year were likely his swing length, bat drag caused by his front-side mechanics, and weight distribution issues stemming from his lower-body mechanics. Thus, I find it odd that his swing length is the same, his foot now opens up to the shortstop and makes it easier for him to be front-side dominant, and that there’s now another step to get his stride started so that his bottom half appears even more rushed.

I’m not going to hit the panic button yet, because it’s a sample size of three plate appearances that we’ve been able to see, but this is definitely an inauspicious start.”

April 2

“Conventional doesn’t equal better, but in this case I think it works. The combination of better setup that removes an extraneous step and an abbreviated leg lift seems promising on the surface. It seems to achieve a happy medium that maintains a lot of the stuff that helped Joc achieve the leverage and loft that have gotten him to this point, while also streamlining his swing a bit to make sure he’s more frequently balanced and on time. An added bonus I observed was that his bat seems to be entering the hitting zone at a less steep angle now, resembling more like what he started out with last year than what he ended with.

So what was the point of the previous setup? I’m not sure, honestly. I assume it was to get Joc to keep his weight back and prevent him from over-committing on soft stuff, as one of his primary problems last year was getting eaten alive by breaking balls under his hands. Still, it would be a somewhat odd way to achieve that goal and ran the risk of developing a bad habit, but if the cue worked then it was worth it in the end.

So all of that’s good news for Joc, and I think he’s back on the right path with his swing now. That said, given how much the Dodgers have tinkered with Pederson’s swing over the past year, the most important part is that they let him stick with this and resist the temptation to abandon it or panic during the inevitable slump, because that’s probably how they got Joc into this mess to begin with.”

Fast forward to now, and Pederson’s swing looks really good. He still has power when he turns on a pitch, but what has been most impressive is the fact he’s going the other way a bit more frequently (with pop) and cutting down his swing a bit with two strikes.

This wasn’t a cut-down swing, but it was one of the most impressive pieces of hitting I’ve seen out him in quite a while. He hit that ball 101 MPH and 382 feet with a launch angle of 29 degrees. That would have been impressive if he had pulled the ball, but that was shot into the Dodgers’ bullpen in left field. He also went the other way on a few occasions during the homestand, resulting in a couple doubles and a run-producing single.

The biggest thing that has changed with Pederson is his contact rate. He had the second-worst contact rate in all of baseball last season (among qualified hitters) at 66.7 percent, just ahead of probable 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant at 66.3 percent. This season, he has improved it by almost 10 percent (76.5), which is a marked and massive improvement. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs wrote about it on Tuesday.

“If you know one thing about contact rate, you know it tends to stay pretty steady. It’s one of those numbers that stabilizes fast, and the way we understand things, there’s generally an inverse relationship between contact and power. You hear about players who sell out for homers. You hear, less often, about players who might do the opposite. Pederson’s contact is up. He hasn’t sacrificed any of his pop. Where Pederson last year hit the ball with two-thirds of his attempted swings, lately he’s been flirting with 80%. Pederson has gone from exploitable in this regard to almost league-average.

Time for perspective! Comparing last year and this year, Pederson is presently sitting on a contact rate that’s gotten better by 10 points. We have 15 years of information, and over that span, there are 3,259 cases of players who have batted at least 250 times in consecutive seasons.”

Pederson is in the company of guys like Karim Garcia, Bill Hall and Austin Kearns in terms of 9-10 percent improvements in contact rate. Not exactly Murderers’ Row, but he’s also in the company of former All-Stars Jason Bay and Mike Sweeney … and some guy named Barry Bonds.

A deeper dive into the plate discipline stats show an incredible jump in contact on pitches outside the strike zone (from 49 to 63.2 percent) and a big jump on pitches inside the zone (77 to 85.3 percent). This has come with an overall swing rate that is actually down by 0.6 percent from last season. His swing percentage on pitches out of the zone is only up 1.4 percent, while his swings on pitches in the zone is down 3 percent. Unsurprisingly, his swinging strike/whiff rate is down dramatically — from 14 percent last season to a slightly above league-average 9.8 percent now — which leads to the strikeout rate also being down more than 4 percent from last season.

But what about lately? Why has Joc been so good in the second half?

There honestly aren’t a ton of differences in his batted ball numbers from the first half to the second half. His ground ball, fly ball and line drive rates in the first and second halves are within a percentage point of each other. The biggest thing is his BABIP has jumped 100 points in the second half (.272 to .370), and he’s hitting the ball harder in the second half. He had an average exit velocity of 92.7 MPH in the first half (still really good), but it’s up to 95.6 MPH in the second half — second-best in baseball behind, of course, Pedro Alvarez. As Sullivan notes, Pederson hasn’t sacrificed his power and the ability to hit the ball hard while making more contact. Last season, Pederson was 25th in baseball with an average exit velocity of 92.3 MPH, and this season, he’s 19th at 93.2 MPH. His launch angle is up 4 degrees from last season, resulting in a more than 3 percent increase in line drives.

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Pederson is showing the kind of player he can and should be in the majors going forward. Yes, he’s somewhat shielded by basically being a platoon player, but he is hell on right-handed pitching. He has made adjustments, has matured at the plate and is still hitting the ball incredibly hard. He isn’t going to win a batting title anytime soon, but he should be a consistently above-average offensive player (which plays up in center field) against right-handed pitching. Here’s hoping he gets a chance, at some point, to hit against lefties to at least see if he has a future against southpaws.

Bottom line is, Pederson is a really good baseball player, and the Dodgers are much better because of it.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin’ Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif., and has yet to be shot.