How Legit are Joc Pederson’s Swing-and-Miss Tendencies?

joc pederson

A few weeks back, Lou Musto, one of our handful of fantastic Sandlot contributors here at Gammons Daily, appropriately delved into the many reasons why Joc Pederson is baseball’s must-watch prospect this season. If by some chance you haven’t checked out the article yet — and I suggest you do rather soon, because he’s a great writer whose spot-on with his analysis — allow me to summarize Lou’s fundamental point: Pederson is a really, really, really good hitter. But we’ve known this for a while now.

Between rookie and low-A Midwest League ball as a 19-year-old pup in 2011, the Palo Alto native bashed his way to a .910 OPS during what was then his first full season of pro baseball. A year later in high-A ball, he posted an OPS of .913. A year after that, .878 in double-A ball. Triple-A pitchers showed little sign of containment last season, when Pederson’s OPS finished at a healthy 1.017. That hitting prowess, coupled with his ability on the basepaths and in the field, was the key reason the Dodgers dealt Matt Kemp to San Diego this offseason. Dodgers management, along with just about every legitimate talent evaluator out there, knew Pederson was the cornerstone bat around which they’d build for the future. And that’s the gosh-darn truth.

That being said, Pederson’s bat hasn’t quite lived up to the hype thus far. After making his big-league debut as a late-season callup on September 1 with Los Angeles, the former eleventh-round pick proceeded to slash .143/.351/.143 (.494 OPS) over 38 plate appearances throughout the final month of the 2014 regular season, and through eight plate appearances to begin the 2015 season, his OPS sits at .536. This gives him a .505 OPS to begin his pro career. Oof. Considering the Mike Trouts, Bryce Harpers and Jose Fernandezes of the world, there’s an argument to be made that we expected a bit too much out of Pederson from the get-go. There’s also an argument to be made that 46 PAs isn’t enough of a sample by which to judge a player. To these, I will mostly agree.

But here’s what’s really got me concerned, regardless of the small sample: Whiffs. Pederson has struck out 14 times in 46 career plate appearances in The Show, which equates to a strikeout rate of 30.4% thus far. Among hitters with at least as many trips to the plate as Pederson since his debut, whereabouts of 90% own a strikeout rate lower than that mark. This was arguably the biggest uncertainty attached to Pederson during his stay in the minors, where even with his scintillating production he managed to strike out at a 21.1% frequency. Yet even back then, talent evaluators seemed far from concerned with this drawback. Per Vince Lara-Cinisomo of Baseball America early last September after Pederson’s initial promotion:

Multiple evaluators also were not concerned about the number of strikeouts—149—saying his swing carries no red flags. “He’s probably the best player in the (Pacific Coast) league overall,” one scout said. “He can do everything; He’s a really, really good center fielder; He’s aggressive on the bases. The only question is is the power legit?  … But the bat speed is there. He’ll play center in the majors and make it look easy, he can really go get it.”

Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs tabs Pederson’s present hit tool as fringe-average (45) with some room to grow to become above-average (55), so it stands to reason that he might strike out more often than someone who’s elite at putting bat on ball — say, Jose Altuve. Moreover, Pederson’s raw power — 60/60 on the scouting scale — was his most noteworthy asset as a prospect, and we know that guys who hit for power generally strike out more often than contact-hitters. Yet despite all of this, it amazes me that scouts, including the one quoted by Lara-Cinisomo, were never overly concerned with Pederson’s strikeout totals as a prospect, because he’s really struggled to put bat on ball thus far in his career.

Take his first few plate appearances of 2015, for example. Pederson has swung at 15 pitches through eight plate appearances this season, 10 of which he has failed to make contact with the baseball. For those of you counting at home, that equates to a miss rate of 66.7%. Yep, two out of three. If we wanted to evaluate his performance from a misses-per-pitch standpoint, it’s equally as concerning. Ten out of 37 pitches thrown to Pederson thus far in 2015 have been swings-and-misses — 27%. Taking into consideration his production from 2014, his career miss rate comes to 37.8%, his swinging strike rate to 13.7%. League-average over the past two seasons is 20.5% and 9.4%, respectively. This is a problem.

Pederson Swing GIF

And the image above shows why. Here, Pederson pulls the trigger on a 86 MPH changeup from James Shields. It doesn’t work out too well for him. This happened on opening day at Chavez Ravine, so we know this is very recent. It’s true that Shields’ change makes even the best hitters look silly at times, and it’s true that this is one pitch — and one very ugly swing-and-miss — in an extraordinarily small sample size of playing time. But it’s still concerning. Yes, Pederson creates nice bat speed and effectively keeps the meat of the bat through the impact zone, which are good things. And, notably, he’s a bit more upright pre-swing than he was at the end of last season. His hands also begin further away from his body than in 2014, and he seems to be employing a more emphasized leg kick.

All this aside, we know the problems here. Chiefly, he’s way out in front. He probably didn’t expect a 3-2 changeup from Shields, who actually misses his down-and-away target by the entire length of the plate. But that’s what big-league pitchers do: They do what’s unexpected. I’m not going to pretend to be a big-league hitting coach — hopefully one day! — but it seems as though Pederson’s pre-swing tuneup (i.e. lifting his front leg, bringing his hands back prior to planting his foot) would be mainly geared toward hitting and handling fastballs. Essentially, it’s too long. I’m not expecting him to change his approach — it’s made him a top prospect, right?– but big-league hitters make adjustments every day. Pederson might have to tweak a few things to shore up some of the holes in his swing.

But has it always been this way? No, not the strikeouts — we know he’s always had somewhat of a tendency for those. What we want to know here is whether or not Pederson’s swing-and-miss issues seen thus far in his big-league career had been an as much of a problem during his stay in the minors, and if scouts were right with respect to the lack of ‘red flags’ attached to his swing. Pitch f/x data on minor-league hitters isn’t available yet, unfortunately, so I resorted to some old-fashioned manual research through MiLB gameday scoring to come up with the data presented below.

comparison

Major-league data courtesy TruMedia Networks || Minor-league data courtesy MiLB gameday

The triple-A data represents that which occurred during his 248 combined plate appearances during both April and September of 2014, rather than all 553 of his trips to the dish, as I simply don’t have enough time in my schedule to sift through that many PAs. As such, these numbers are not fully representative of Pederson’s entire campaign and are prone to some amount of inaccuracy. That doesn’t discredit what they’re telling us, though. By combining his early-season and pre-promotion numbers together, we’re given what I deem to be a large enough sample to judge the basis what occurred throughout last season. What have we learned? More of the same.

Clearly, swinging and missing has been a problem for Pederson, even when he tore through Pacific Coast League pitching throughout the 2014 minor league season. His 13.5% swinging strike rate — calculated as whiffs divided by pitches seen — is nearly identical to that which he’s posted thus far in his big league career. He’s swinging about five percent less often and seeing more pitches since his promotion, which at the very least shows us he’s been selective, even sans chase rate in those minor league scoreboards I sifted through. But even so, while Pederson seems to be a patient hitter, he’s making less contact when he does swing, which is particularly concerning by my estimation.

Maybe it should have been more concerning to others, too. Granted, you can’t really blame those who may have overlooked Pederson’s strikeout totals in triple-A ball. The man led the league in OPS (1.107), wRC+ (164) and finished second in walk rate (18.1%), after all, not to mention his ridiculous track record in the low minors. But with this being said, all of that production may have masked the fact that he has legitimate swing-and-miss tendencies that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. And that’s the biggest reason why Pederson hasn’t quite lived up to hype thus far in his big-league career. I’m not entirely sure of needs to happen to remedy this caveat to his game. All I know is something needs to improve for Pederson to reach his potential as a big-league hitter.

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Statistics courtesy of TruMedia Networks LLC unless otherwise noted, and are updated through April 8, 2015.

Alec Dopp is a contributor to Gammons Daily. He is not a major-league hitting coach, or a video scout, though he strives to become one. Follow him on Twitter @AlecDopp.

Comments

  1. WhiteBoy41 says:

    How about just starting the season @ AAA.