2015 Positional Review: Center Field

After significant struggles at the position in 2014, the Dodgers staked their fortunes in the rookie Joc Pederson. When that faltered (or when he needed a day off), they turned to fellow rookie Enrique Hernandez. All things considered, it went pretty well, even if it wasn’t a smooth ride.

How Dodger center fielders fared (MLB ranks in parenthesis):

.235 (29th) .346 (6th) .430 (9th) 13.5 (2nd) 26.6 (29th) 117 (6th) 4.6 (9th)

You can certainly see the influence of Joc Pederson in there. Second-worst batting average, second-highest strikeout rate, but the second-best walk rate and sixth-best OBP. Add it all up and you get a pretty competent team-wide package. It helps that Enrique Hernandez was an excellent backup option, of course. Also, Chris Heisey existed.

Joc Pederson

.210 .346 .417 15.7 29.1 115 2.8

Joc Pederson’s debut season was a lot of things. Incredible, promising, exciting, disappointing, scary, all depending on which few weeks you were watching. The one thing the first season wasn’t, though, was boring.

On the whole, Pederson’s debut season was excellent. Nearly three wins out of a rookie in a premium position, with defensive metrics that were probably too low? If somebody put the line listed above in front of fans before the season, it would have been considered an unqualified success. However, that’s an over-simplification, as we all know. Arbitrary endpoints suck, but let’s just look at Pederson’s month-by-month breakdowns:

March/April .298 .461 .596 186
May .236 .341 .519 138
June .222 .379 .495 147
July .169 .229 .258 37
August .120 .384 .260 100
September .203 .308 .329 81

What a roller coaster.

Dustin noted Pederson’s torrid start at the end of April:

Pederson will probably slow down with his power, as his isolated power (as Daniel pointed out in the comment section of last night’s recap) is higher in Los Angeles (.298) than it was in Albuquerque last year (.279). As great as he has been so far, I’d be surprised if he maintained it (but he will hit the ball hard and hit the ball far).

At that point, Pederson was hitting for more power at sea level than he was at Albuquerque the year before. He was near the top of the leaderboards for batted ball velocity, which made it look more legitimate. He had forced himself onto a leaderboard with Giancarlo Stanton, leading the Dodgers as they did their 1927 Yankees impression to start the year. The night after Dustin wrote that piece, Pederson hit a grand slam.

Pederson kept on going right through the end of June. The batting average dipped, which isn’t surprising for a fly ball/strikeout hitter. The power and walk rate remained strong. At the end of June, Pederson was centered in discussions for rookie of the year, and was better in many measures than the eventual winner Kris Bryant. Things were going so smoothly that we didn’t really write about him again until the all-star break, when Mike chronicled Pederson’s runner-up position in the home run derby:

That was fun. That was so fun. I don’t think anyone could argue that MLB’s new timed Home Run Derby was anything other than a smashing success, because that was just a different event than we’ve seen in recent years. The bloat was gone. The excitement was in. This format was great, and I imagine it’s here to stay.

It helped, of course, that Great American Ballpark is known for being a hitter’s haven. It helped that the hometown boy Todd Frazier (go Jersey!) won it on a last-second walkoff. And it certainly helped that Joc Pederson hit bombs, 39 of them, to beatManny Machado and Albert Pujols before falling to Frazier in the  end.

The home run derby marked something of an artificial turning point for Pederson, so some will use that as a narrative point. However, he began cooling off before the all-star break, hitting just .132/.214/.211 in the two weeks prior to his big showing in the derby. The cold spell continued, leading Mike to write articles titled “What if Joc Pederson Can’t Turn it Around?” and “Now is Not the Time to Give Up on Joc Pederson” within ten days in August. Pederson’s offense got really weird during that month, as he managed to have a .120 batting average and 100 wRC+ simultaneously, thanks to a nearly 30% walk rate. Pederson’s playing time started to bleed away in favor of Hernandez, and at times he looked completely lost at the plate. The seemingly endless changes in his swing probably didn’t help.

September started out much better for Pederson, thanks in part to yet another change in his swing, documented by Chad:

It’s not as obvious, but it’s quite clear he’s also been tinkering with his leg kick. After taking a significant bend to start the season, he’s now cut it down quite a bit to more of a lift than anything else. But again, like with his hands, that’s not important in itself. A high kick isn’t damning (see: Turner, Justin), but Joc would frequently leave himself exposed by getting out over his front knee (lunging) and also struggled with timing. Those flaws led to him getting eaten alive by breaking balls below his hands, and the pressing that followed led to a deterioration of his previously quality pitch selection.

Now, Joc appears to be much improved, staying back a bit longer and allowing his bat to work through the zone like it was early in the season instead of being off-balance and having to chop through the strike zone. Thus, I’m cautiously optimistic about these recent developments.

Unfortunately, the positive developments tapered off towards the end of the year, with Pederson finishing off his terrible second half with a mediocre final month.

It’s really anyone’s guess on how good Pederson will be this year. He still has incredible promise, and ultimately the full season results are what matter the most. Whether he can be a center field playing Adam Dunn or if he’s a major league bust hangs in the balance, and the Dodgers’ chances in 2016 partially hang in the balance with him.

I couldn’t fit it in naturally with any of the text, but we must remember that Pederson also saved a game doing this:

Not bad for a rookie.

Enrique Hernandez

.307 .346 .490 5.0 21.1 132 1.7

Dustin already covered Hernandez in the second base review. While Hernandez only played 148-2/3 innings in center to Pederson’s 1223, he still provided some much-needed versatility in the position after a year of putting players like Scott Van Slyke and Yasiel Puig in the position. Hernandez is better than those two in center (not like that’s hard), but he still looked overmatched there at times. The Dodgers’ acquisition of Trayce Thompson may help this from being exposed too badly in 2016, but it’s something to watch for if Pederson proves ineffective or is injured.

Chris Heisey

.182 .347 .327 20.8 23.6 90 0.1

He hit that grand slam and somehow out Joc-Pedersoned Joc Pederson in his batting line. He’s not really notable, but he wasn’t the complete black hole some thought him to be. That being said, he doesn’t really belong in center and his career offense is… poor, so he’s not one to miss.

Joc Pederson will begin this season as the Dodger center fielder. However, the Dodgers traded for some insurance in Trayce Thompson over the winter. Pederson still represents the Dodgers’ best chance to be productive in the position this season, but he’ll be looking over his shoulder if he struggles for too long.

Next up: Right field

About Daniel Brim

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Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.