Ordinarily, Joc Pederson's RBI single in the ninth inning of Thursday's rout of the Brewers wouldn't have been notable. All it did was make the score 11–4 in favor of the Dodgers en route to a 14–4 final. That hit, however, was the rookie centerfielder's first on a ball in play since April 27, a span of 39 plate appearances. Not that Pederson was exactly in a slump: He had homered seven times in the nine games between those two hits, and is now tied with teammate Adrian Gonzalez for second in the league with nine.
Indeed, the shape of Pederson's performance has been odd—we'll get to that in a moment—but Los Angeles couldn't have asked for much more than it's gotten out of the 23-year-old, who is hitting .271/.427/.647 through 111 PA. That's good for sixth in the league in on-base percentage, second in slugging percentage and OPS+ (196) and fourth in WAR (1.7), thanks not only to his hitting but also to his highlight reel defense. In marked contrast to a team that's been a combined 45 runs below average (via both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating) in centerfield over the past three seasons thanks to Matt Kemp’s injuries and decline, Pederson been making great plays all year.
An 11th-round draft pick out of Palo Alto High School in 2010, Pederson tore up every minor league level at which he had an extended stay and climbed the major prospect lists in the process. Last year, he hit .303/.435/.582 with 33 homers and 30 steals at Triple A Albuquerque, producing the Pacific Coast League's first 30/30 season in over 80 years. He went just 4-for-28 in a late-season showing with the Dodgers, though his nine walks hinted at the solidity of his underlying approach at the plate. He came into the year ranked among the top 20 prospects by Baseball America (eighth), MLB.com (13th) and Baseball Prospectus (18th), and despite the Dodgers' overcrowded outfield, figured to start the year in the middle pasture given the roster's lack of any other true centerfielders.
So far, the Rookie of the Year contender has helped the Dodgers jump out to an 18–10 start despite the losses of Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford to injuries, which have temporarily simplified the playing time issues in that outfield. Even in the absence of that pair, Pederson has had plenty of help in an offense that has produced a National League-best 5.11 runs per game, with Gonzalez (.364/.433/.720, for a 216 OPS+), Yasmani Grandal (.301/.414/.534, 164 OPS+), forgotten man Andre Ethier (.292/.395/.556, 163 OPS+) and super-subs Justin Turner and Alex Guerrero (a combined .330/.375/.739 with 10 homers in 96 PA) all red-hot. The upgrade that Pederson has provided in centerfield, as well as those by middle infielders Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, is a big reason for Los Angeles’ 13-point improvement in defensive efficiency relative to 2014, from .690 to .703. All of that has helped the team survive losing Hyun-jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy, the team's third and fourth starters: Despite Ryu's extended absence and McCarthy's season-ending elbow injury, the Dodgers still rank fourth in run prevention at 3.46 runs per game.
As to the shape of Pederson's performance, it's strange and at least somewhat unsustainable. Pederson's current 20.7% walk rate is third in the majors behind those of Carlos Santana (21.4%) and Bryce Harper (20.8%); those would rank as the majors' highest marks since 2007, Barry Bonds' final season. Since then, Jose Bautista is the only player to top 20% (20.2% in '11), and in the seven full seasons without Bonds, players have posted walk rates higher than 16.5% only 12 times; eight of those seasons are accounted for by the now-retired Adam Dunn, Jack Cust, Nick Johnson, Lance Berkman, Chipper Jones and Carlos Pena. Likewise, Pederson's 33.3% strikeout rate, currently 12th in the majors, was matched or surpassed only five times by batting title qualifiers from '08 to '14 (three of them by Mark Reynolds). As to Pederson's 40.9% rate of home runs per fly ball, no player—not even peak Bonds or any other modern slugger—has ever topped 40% over a full season.
Putting it all together, Pederson's Three True Outcomes rate—the percentage of plate appearances in which he's walked, homered or struck out, emblematic of the game’s evolution over the past quarter-century—is higher than any for a full-season batting title qualifier:
|Adam Dunn||White Sox||2012||649||6.3||16.2||34.2||56.7|
Beyond the TTO stuff, even with the 0-for-8 on balls in play during his recent homers-only binge, Pederson’s .350 batting average on balls in play this year isn't out of line with what a player can produce. Puig's .356 BABIP last year ranked sixth in the majors among batting title qualifiers, and less mobile players such as Miguel Cabrera (.346) and Matt Adams (.338) weren't far off. On that list above, even lumbering lumberjacks like Cust, Clark, and Thome produced BABIPs of .350 or above in high-TTO seasons.
All of the extremes in Pederson’s performance can be chalked up to small sample sizes, of course; we're roughly one-sixth of the way through the season. But for as unsustainable as parts of that performance may be, Pederson has helped make the Dodgers' new management look smart for dealing Kemp (for Grandal and change) to the Padres back in December. San Diego’s 30-year-old rightfielder is hitting .292/.328/.417 (113 OPS+) with just one homer and five walks in 125 plate appearances, and within the small sample size stuff, he's been six DRS worse than Pederson in the field (-3 versus +3).
It's too early to bury Kemp, but there's no reason to believe the Dodgers will suffer ill effects from having gone with the healthy and much less expensive rookie. Young Joc is doing just fine.