We’re still not even a month’s worth of games into the season, meaning a glance at Major League Baseball’s leaderboards will yield names such as Jake Marisnick, Adrian Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz and Joc Pederson. Neither Marisnick nor Gonzalez will maintain a wRC+ north of 200 throughout the season, probably. Cruz lead all of baseball and home runs last year and has yet to cool off after a scorching April. And Pederson? Well, the super-prospect is pretty much doing everything.
Pederson, an eleventh-round pick in the 2010 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, entered the season as the No. 8 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, and No. 2 in the Dodgers organization behind Corey Seager. His bat and glove were all but ready for the majors last summer, but the glut of overpriced outfielders kept the prospect at Triple-A until September.
The Dodgers paved the way for Pederson to be the Opening Day centerfielder when Matt Kemp was shipped to the San Diego Padres after repeatedly being connected to the Seattle Mariners among other teams. With Carl Crawford in left, Yasiel Puig in right and Andre Ethier on the bench, the center field spot was Pederson’s to lose entering Spring Training.
I saw Pederson on two occasions down in Peoria and Tempe, Arizona in March, and the most noticeable aspect of his game for me was his clean swing and bat speed. Pederson has 60-grade power and it was evident in a monster shot over the right field bullpen in Peoria, and he did hit 55 home runs between 2013 and 2014 in the minors.
His hit tool is a couple ticks below the power tool, but his plate discipline is regarded as excellent and evidenced in an 18.1 percent walk rate at Triple-A in 2014.
PI’s Jason A. Churchill saw Pederson last July in Tacoma and remarked that the 23-year old’s swing had improved and he was hitting to all fields as opposed to the pull-side specifically, a tendency he had shown earlier in the minors.
On the defensive side of things Pederson grades out as average or better in terms of range and arm strength, both are in the 50 range. For the time being he can play a solid center field though there is some thought that he’ll eventually end up in right field. His speed tool is also around the 50 range and he managed to swipe 87 bags in the minors between 2012 and 2014.
Back to 2015. In 86 plate appearances entering Sunday’s games Pederson owns a .292/.447/.646 slash line with a 196 wRC+. His OBP ranks fifth among qualified hitters and his SLG sixth. He’s already hit six home runs and has been the best hitter not named Adrian Gonzalez on the Dodgers. His strikeout rate is slightly higher than where it’s been during his minor league career at 30.2 percent, but his walk rate is at an impressive 20.9 percent that only trails Bryce Harper‘s 22.2 percent.
The early-season defensive metrics are also positive, but it’s still too early to make anything out of them. From a more visual/scouting perspective, he appears comfortable in center field, as he did when I saw him this spring.
Moving forward, the key for Pederson in the batter’s box will be continuing to make adjustments as the league adjusts to him. Working in the left-hander’s favor is the fact he’s had little problem hitting the ball to all fields so far this season. He’s also been seeing a lot of pitches away and very few on the inner half. It’s possible pitchers could start trying to jam him in an attempt to produce some weak outs, but if Pederson can maintain the discipline he’s shown, that probably won’t be a big issue.
Pederson’s .382 BABIP is unlikely to be sustained long-term, however he did post a .385 BABIP at Triple-A in 2014. The left-hander projects as more of a .250-to-.260 hitter based on his skill set so we can probably expect to see his batting average fall out of the .290 range as the plate appearances build up and the BABIP regresses.
Another factor to consider is the distribution of playing time when Puig returns from the disabled list. The Cuban sensation has been nursing a hamstring strain and is expected to be activated next Sunday. It’s likely that Puig will resume the regular right field role and push Ethier back into more of a part-time role with the club. Neither Ethier nor Puig have made an appearance in center field, yet. Though should Pederson start slumping, manager Don Mattingly has several options at his disposal.
Perhaps that is the biggest hurdle yet to come: a slump. Over 23 games Pederson has only gone two consecutive games without a hit on one occasion. We talk about how the mental side of the game is so difficult, especially for young hitters, and being able to maintain an approach during an 0-for-15 slump isn’t always so simple. There are several veterans in the clubhouse though including guys like Jimmy Rollins. Reportedly, the culture that has been regarded as toxic in recent years has been much improved with the personnel changes brought on by the new regime.
It’s been an impressive first month of everyday work for the blue chip outfielder. Pederson has earned an extended stay as the club’s regular center fielder and has even gotten a few starts in the leadoff spot recently.
His status as top prospect could be transitioned to solid regular before season’s end and All-Star over the next couple seasons should he maintain the current output. And there is evidence to suggest he will.