Dodgers rookie center fielder Joc Pederson was a dynamo through the first half of the season, amassing 20 home runs and 2.6 fWAR in 89 games. Yesterday, manager Don Mattingly announced that Pederson has lost his starting job to Enrique Hernandez.
Blame it on the Home Run Derby Curse if you want, but something has shoved Pederson’s production off a cliff since the All-Star break. Since the break, he’s only hit three home runs while batting just .163 and scraping together 0.1 fWAR. The weirdest thing about those numbers is that Pederson has been able to keep himself even a hair above replacement-level production without really being able to hit the ball.
Even during his amazing first half, hitting for average was never Pederson’s thing. He hit just .230 and had a 29-percent strikeout rate in the first half, but made up for all the whiffs by hitting for power and walking a ton. His 15.3-percent walk rate was the third-highest among all outfielders in the first half, essentially making him a skinnier version of peak Adam Dunn.
When a good hitter suddenly starts sucking eggs, you can often find the explanation in his strikeout and walk rates—the former balloons while the latter shrinks—and you can say something like, “Ah, well, he’s just not seeing the ball that well anymore,” and move on with your day. This is not the case with Pederson, though, which is partly why his crash has been so weird. Pederson’s batting eye has actually gotten better in the second half—his walk rate has jumped to 17 percent while his strikeout rate has held steady at 29 percent, and his August OBP is sitting at .413. So, what gives?
Pederson’s problem isn’t that he can’t see the ball anymore, it’s that he can no longer hit it hard (chart via Baseball Savant):
Pederson spent the first half of the season giving Giancarlo Stanton a run for the title of Hardest Hitting Motherfucker In The League, but lately he’s been doing nothing but slapping weak balls all over the field. This has naturally put a dent in his BABIP, which was at a not-abnormal .282 in the first half, but has dipped to .218 in the second half.
Perhaps there’s something mechanically wrong with Pederson’s swing, or maybe he’s hiding an injury that’s zapped all of his power. Either way, Don Mattingly finds himself in a frustrating position. It seems counterintuitive to bench a leadoff hitter who walks as much as Pederson does, but even the most discerning batters need to be able to hit a little bit. Just a few hard-hit balls into the gap here and there, and Pederson suddenly goes back to being one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.