LOS ANGELES -- Joc Pederson is a fan of hip-hop music, not so much the political or socially conscious stuff, but the kind that oozes with menace and swagger. So, when he came up to the plate to the bouncy jingle “MMMBop” by Hanson in the second inning, it didn’t exactly get him all jacked up for a big, testosterone-fueled moment.
“I was laughing walking up to the plate, to be honest with you,” Pederson said. “They got me pretty good.”
Pederson’s walk-up music Friday -- a different boy band every time he came up -- was a prank pulled off by some of his veteran teammates (Andre Ethier and Justin Turner are suspects), but Pederson kept his edge. He got a changeup from Rubby De La Rosa, put his usual vicious swing on it and launched it about 25 rows up into the right-field pavilion for his first career grand slam to fuel the Dodgers' 8-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The fact that Pederson can roll with the pranks -- late last season, he had to get his teammates takeout coffee while dressed in full uniform before a game in Pittsburgh -- is among the reasons Pederson’s rookie season has, thus far, gone so smoothly in the clubhouse. The fact that he does things such as rob hitters of RBI extra-base hits in blowout games and keeps some earned runs off a veteran reliever’s ERA doesn’t hurt either.
All in all, he has been a breath of fresh air to a Dodgers team that, if anything, has at times looked a little old in the past few years. In other words, he’s doing for the 2015 team exactly what Yasiel Puig did in 2013, just two months earlier in the season. Puig didn’t come up until June.
Those veteran players all know what Pederson is going through because they, too, were once the promising young player coddled through the system but burdened by expectations. Plus, Pederson, like Puig, plays with joy.
“It’s fun seeing someone who’s always smiling no matter what,” Andre Ethier said.
A member of the Dodgers won the National League Rookie of the Year award every season from 1992 to 1996, a run that produced one potential Hall of Famer, Mike Piazza, and longtime standouts Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi and Hideo Nomo. Since then, they have been shut out.
There are a lot of reasons why the Dodgers’ once-celebrated minor league system stopped pumping out premium talent. They involve unstable ownership and, at times, neglect. But the team appears to be rebuilding its pipeline. Pederson looks like a solid bet to compete for the award this season -- he leads all major league rookies in OPS (1.096) -- and he might just be the first in another wave heading toward L.A.
The team’s top prospect, Corey Seager, just got promoted to Triple-A after hitting .376 at Double-A Tulsa. Uber-talented left-handed pitcher Julio Urias, 18, has a 2.18 ERA and 8.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A.
And even some of the ignored pieces from the previous regime’s farm system, maligned as it was, have proven more than a little useful. Relievers Yimi Garcia and Pedro Baez have been core members of the Dodgers’ bullpen, which has been far better than expected. And Carlos Frias, who pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings and probably could have gone deeper Friday, looks like he deserves at least one more shot to hold down a spot in the rotation.
The Dodgers are off to a roaring start -- 14-8, all against the NL West -- and the contributions of the least-experienced members of the team have, at times, been the driving force, particularly when complemented by the steady production of veterans such as Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
It’s the kind of mix Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has been striving for since he got here. Since Puig’s arrival, Mattingly has talked about the energy of young players that feeds the veterans. In turn, younger players learn to weather the season’s slow grind by watching older guys prepare.
“Joc’s at the beginning of his career, and to see him play is exciting for guys,” Mattingly said.
It’s exciting, and yet it’s impossible not to mess with from time to time.