PHOENIX — When gauging the performance of Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, it’s usually his bat that tells the story. But after a down year in 2017 and facing a fierce roster battle in 2018, his defense in the outfield will be as important as anything.
Pederson has been a streaky hitter throughout his three years in the majors, and last year saw him find both extremes. He hit three home runs in the World Series and had an extra base hit in five consecutive games against the Astros, but that was just two months after getting sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City after a hellacious 2-for-41 slump. It was the first time Pederson was sent to the minors since making his major league debut in September 2014.
“You don’t want to take it for granted, but going through it definitely opens your eyes a little bit,” Pederson said.
On the year, one that was marred by two trips to the disabled list — once for a right groin strain and once for a concussion after an outfield collision — Pederson hit .212/.331/.407 with 11 home runs and 20 doubles in 102 games. He was a league average hitter by weighted runs created (Pederson had a 100 wRC+) but it was the worst of his three full seasons offensively.
But it was on defense where he suffered most, going from slightly above average in most metrics in 2016 in center field to well below average in 2017. The difference was even more jarring when considering he made only 72 starts in center field last year after 114 starts there in 2016.
“We’re hoping that was just an outlier season for him defensively,” manager Dave Roberts said.
As measured by Statcast, had Pederson as making two more plays than the average outfielder in 2016, but last year he plummeted to eight plays below average which was tied for 200th among the 207 qualified major league outfielders.
Matt Kemp was 207th at 17 plays below average.
“There was a slip last year and we talked about it,” Roberts said. “In Joc’s words there was a little bit of lack of purpose, focus on the defensive side last year. To be an elite defender you’ve got to be committed on every single pitch. Self admitted, it wasn’t as sharp as it should have been.”
“I definitely feel a lot better in the outfield. I worked on a few things,” Pederson said. “I worked on quickness and speed, and am feeling really good right now.”
Much like Kemp, who is down a reported 40 pounds from last season, better physical conditioning was on the docket as well for Pederson during the offseason.
“He’s in good shape,” Roberts said. “The way I see his body moving, it’s moving like it should.”
How Pederson performs on offense is also a factor, and though he’s just 5-for-33 (.152) with two doubles and two walks this spring, Roberts sounded less concerned with the game results and more focused on the approach.
“He’s working mechanically on staying in his legs, and focusing on his direction, through the middle of the field instead of being so rotational. And with that, staying in the strike zone,” Roberts said. “If you’ve seen Joc’s at-bats in the last week he’s been in the strike zone. He hasn’t squared many balls up, but he’s staying in the strike zone that’s a win where he’s at. If he continues to do that he’ll be fine.”
Pederson this spring has played 41 innings in center field and 23 innings in left, though with Chris Taylor getting the bulk of the time in center the best shot for playing time for Pederson seems to be in left.
But with Kemp on board as at least the right-handed half of a time share in left field and Andrew Toles healthy and coming on strong this spring, roster spots are limited and Pederson very well could find himself on the outside looking in, at least to start the season.
“We’re the Dodgers, the best organization in baseball. There’s always going to be competition, someone coming for your job,” Pederson said. “It’s nothing new, and it’s not going to change.
“It’s part of baseball. It’s a hard game. You just have to keep going, and keep standing up. You’re going to get knocked down a few times but you have to get back on your feet.”