Joc Pederson has spent his second season in the Los Angeles Dodgers' outfield rediscovering the form that made him a National League All-Star in 2015, before opposing pitchers began preying upon his weaknesses and his numbers took a massive turn south. In the course of his revival, he has attained a status that transcends statistical production.
He has earned the coveted Chase Utley seal of approval.
Utley, a connoisseur of hitting and one of the most respected players in the game, remembers during a disabled-list stint last summer watching video and being thoroughly impressed by the backspin Pederson generated and the way the ball jumped off his bat with authority. Now that they're in the same lineup, Utley sees Pederson adding some subtle touches that bode well for his staying power.
"Something is definitely clicking," Utley said. "I think he's kind of turned the corner. He's got better pitch recognition now, and when he hits the ball, it's scary. It takes off, big time.
"You can't teach that at all. It's just something he naturally has."
Pederson, a former hot prospect, has been a major contributor to a potent offense that has vaulted the Dodgers past the San Francisco Giants into first place in the National League West. Over his last 22 games, Pederson is hitting .364 (24-for-66) with 15 runs scored, eight doubles, five homers and 16 RBIs. In the process, he has helped turn what could have been a problem area into a team strength.
The Dodgers' outfield had all the makings of a portrait in chaos this season. Yasiel Puig hit .260 with seven homers in 277 at-bats to earn a trip to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he annoyed the brass with some embarrassing Snapchat party videos last week. In June, the Dodgers released Carl Crawford and assumed the $35 million left on his contract, and Andre Ethier has yet to play a game after suffering a fracture right tibia in spring training.
Pederson's turnaround, coupled with Howie Kendrick's successful transition to left field, has brought stability to the Dodgers' outfield and fortified the batting order. His positive strides are a reflection of some soul-searching forced upon him by a difficult learning curve. After logging a .178/.317/.300 post-All-Star Game slash line last season, Pederson knew he couldn't survive without some adjustments.
"I'm really big on mechanics and hitting position," Pederson said. "When I get to a good position, I feel more comfortable. It definitely helps having some time in the big leagues and understanding you don't need to do everything in one day.
"I made some mechanical changes to get my body in good hitting position. I'm on plane a lot better now, and I'm able to maintain some good posture and have a good bat path. It's huge. I sucked last year, and I had to change it and work hard and put in a lot of time to figure it out. I'm not where I want to be, but it's encouraging to see the improvement."
A big part of Pederson's success is simply putting the ball in play. He has reduced his swinging-strike percentage from 14 to 9.6 and raised his contact rate from 66.7 to 77.8 percent this season. As Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs points out, that ranks among the biggest improvements in contact rate in the past 15 MLB seasons.
"We all understand that when Joc puts the bat on the baseball, it comes out hot," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "To me, it boils down to taking balls and swinging at strikes. That's what he's doing."
Pederson, an inveterate tinkerer, needs to work to harness his energy and stick to a consistent game plan. One Dodger watcher counts at least six different approaches and/or batter's box placements for Pederson this season. In addition, discerning fans who watch Pederson in the outfield will notice that he never stands still. After each pitch, Pederson will turn his head and take a few steps toward the center-field fence. Then he'll turn back to the plate and slowly walk in as the pitcher is in middelivery. He might want to invest in a fitness tracker to calculate his steps.
"Nolan Arenado is the same way in Colorado," said a National League scout. "He makes you nervous just watching him before the ball is pitched. Yet he's very enjoyable once the ball is pitched."
The same scout categorizes talk of bat paths and swing planes as "jargon" and attributes Pederson's resurgence to factors in and out of his control. Pederson has four hits in a mere 38 at-bats against left-handers this season, and he typically sits in favor of Enrique Hernandez against tough lefties. He has also spent most of this season batting sixth, seventh or eighth in the order after logging 311 plate appearances in the leadoff spot as a rookie.
Beyond the usage patterns, Pederson has done a better job of using the entire field and refraining from trying to jack every pitch into the seats.
"I saw it this year in spring training," the scout said. "He's showing more discipline at the plate, and he's not just trying to 'turn and burn' on balls. It's a natural progression. People saw it in the past, but the question was, 'How much is he going to stick with it?' He's locked in right now. He looks good."
In the clubhouse before games, Pederson is a perpetual motion machine. When he's not walking from his locker to the lounge to the trainer's room in a pair of shorts and a No. 24 Los Angeles Lakers jersey, or taking early swings in the cage, Pederson might camp out with teammates Adrian Gonzalez, Rob Segedin and Justin Turner for a friendly game of cards. If only the results were as impressive as his hitting.
"He needs some work on his pluck," Turner said, laughing. "It's great for me, because all his money goes right into my pocket."
The stakes will be considerably higher as Pederson and his teammates gear up for the final six weeks of the regular season. If Pederson can cash in on his potential and help lead the Dodgers to a postseason share, everyone will have reason to celebrate.