Joc Pederson has big upside, but big strikeout total

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Many of Joc Pederson’s numbers have an eye-opening quality to them. They’re the kind of numbers that can change a team’s plans.

His on-base percentage (.435), slugging percentage (.582), home runs (33), stolen bases (30) and walks (100) at Triple-A Albuquerque last season all speak to a player with nothing more to prove in the minor leagues.

That he accomplished them in a season he started as a 21-year-old suggests that he could be an All-Star for years to come. They built the case that the Los Angeles Dodgers simply had to make room for Pederson, and the team did that by trading Matt Kemp down the freeway to San Diego and moving Yasiel Puig back to right field.

Yet there is one number that has the potential to unravel the entire plan, a number that could put the Dodgers in a bit of a jam if it proves an omen.

Pederson struck out 149 times last year, leading some skeptics to believe his long, aggressive swing will be easy prey to more-experienced, harder-throwing pitchers in the major leagues. That many strikeouts could translate to 200 or more, they say, if Pederson plays a full major league season. Ryan Howard led the majors with 190 strikeouts in 2014.

Getting Pederson more prone to contact has been a big point of emphasis for the Dodgers going back to last season. Acquiring contact hitters has been a big point of emphasis for the Dodgers’ new front office, which could make Pederson stand out in this lineup. One of the organization’s three top prospects, Pederson figures to get first crack at the starting center-field job, though veterans like Andre Ethier, Scott Van Slyke and Chris Heisey are on hand if Pederson fails.

“I don’t think anybody goes up there trying to strike out,” Pederson said. “Like I said, I’m working on all aspects of the game and I need to continue to improve. I mean, I wish it came a lot easier, but that’s just part of the process.”

The Dodgers have reason to trust the process in Pederson’s case. For one thing, he is the best natural center fielder in the organization. For another, he has shown the ability to adjust his game when they have asked him to tinker in a certain area. In 2013, he batted .200 against left-handed pitching. Last season, he hit .299 against lefties.

After seeing him bat .143 and strike out 11 times in 28 at-bats after a September call-up, Dodgers coaches met with Pederson before sending him off for the winter. Pederson wouldn’t elaborate on what aspects of his approach they wanted him to change, but he said he benefited from their advice and refined his play during winter ball in the Dominican Republic and at a winter development camp.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has expressed his regard for Pederson’s talent the past several seasons, at one point comparing his swing to that of Carlos Gonzalez. Mattingly thinks Pederson will cut down on his strikeouts as he gains experience.

“Joc’s aggressive, he’s got power, he swings hard and he’s got a lot of movement in his swing,” Mattingly said. “As he understands his swing more and more and has it under control, I think when he’s swinging the bat well, we’re not going to be that concerned about strikeouts.”

There is plenty to encourage their enthusiasm. On Tuesday, Pederson launched line drive after line drive over the fence in left and left-center field, then hit a majestic fly ball over the batter’s eye in center field. Power to all fields is another aspect of Pederson’s game that has the Dodgers excited about his potential.

Pederson’s talent has elicited flattering comparisons. In addition to mentioning Gonzalez, Mattingly has also said Pederson's swing reminds him a bit of Robinson Cano’s. The man who managed Pederson in Albuquerque last season, Damon Berryhill, recalls a young Jim Edmonds playing with similar grace and a similarly vicious left-handed swing.

“He’s got tremendous power to all fields and takes pride in his defense, too,” Berryhill said. “He’s able to get good jumps and good reads and he’s out there paying attention and wants to be an all-around player.”

As the Dodgers have seen with Puig the past three seasons, players often show up in the major leagues these days with edges that need to be rounded off by time and experience.

Berryhill said Pederson has the aptitude to improve quickly. He also points out that Pederson led the Pacific Coast League in walks. Teams tolerate strikeouts more easily if the player is getting on base at a healthy rate.

“He’s still a young kid and he’s going to get to know the strike zone a little better, learn when to be aggressive and when to back off a little bit,” Berryhill said.

For now, the Dodgers aren’t backing off in their willingness to make Pederson part of what they expect to be a championship-caliber lineup. It might take months before they know whether to trust a handful of big numbers he put up last season, or just one big number.