Friday May 15th, 2015

Joc Pederson, when he’s standing on the outfield grass during games, does an odd little thing between pitches. He turns his back to home plate, takes four or five steps toward the centerfield wall, then turns around and walks back. Sometimes he’ll wander around in a little circle. He goes on these little strolls after every pitch, and in the middle of a game it can seem like he’s checked out, a dude wandering a Malibu beach on a Saturday morning. When his coaches first noticed this habit, they were a little concerned. “We’re like, where the heck is he going? Is he coming back?” says Dodgers third base coach Lorenzo Bundy. “But after a few games, we realized that that’s just Joc. He likes to takes walks.”

Centerfielder, rookie masher, clubhouse errand boy: the 23-year-old Pederson, as his teammates will tell you, is quiet, intense, a little eccentric, a touch quirky. When he was in the minors as a young prospect trying to find his swing, Pederson would stay up all night YouTubing other players at the plate—Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, Mike Trout—and then show up at the park the next day with a new leg kick or bat waggle. Justin Turner, one of his best friends on the Dodgers, calls him “an interesting character.” Yasiel Puig has called him “loco,” and when Yasiel Puig calls you loco, well, that’s obviously saying something.

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As for as his in-game strolls at Chavez Ravine: No matter how far he wanders, the rookie eventually finds his way back to his position, just in time for the pitch. And after play resumes, if the ball is hit within his zip code, he’s more than likely to get it. Pederson covers the outfield like Novak Djokovic covers a tennis court—no space is beyond his reach. “You look at Joc and it’s obvious he’s not a flyer—he’s not Billy Hamilton,” Bundy says. “But with his instincts and his jumps and his positioning, he’s always in a position to go get baseballs.”

Pederson is a young power hitter, a rare thing in this era dominated by gunslingers with video-game fastballs. But amid all the brouhaha over his scorching hot start at the plate—he had 10 home runs entering the weekend, tied for fourth-most in the majors—one thing is overlooked and lost. Pederson's superpower is not just in mashing baseballs. His abilities with the glove have been just as key to Los Angeles' hot start, one fueled by Cirque du Soleil-esque plays like this one:

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The overriding goal of the Dodgers’ breathless and initially head-scratching offseason became clear once the dust settled from their flurry of trades, signings and roster maneuvers. No matter how good the offense, no matter how dominant the top of the rotation, Los Angeles couldn’t become a World Series contender unless it turned into a more versatile, more athletic team. First and foremost, the Dodgers had to get better on defense. That’s why they shipped out Dee Gordon after the second baseman’s All-Star season and replaced him with reliable veteran Howie Kendrick, and it’s why they plucked shortstop Jimmy Rollins from the Phillies. Most notably, it's why they dealt away their biggest offensive star, Matt Kemp, to the division rival Padres in order to make way for a rookie with 28 major league at-bats.

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It’s early, and the statistical sample size from this season is still too small to draw any big conclusions about the 2015 Dodgers, but there are signs that this team could be a very good defensive one, significantly improved from just a year ago. One of the worst fielding teams in baseball in '14 (20th in the majors in Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved), L.A. now ranks 10th in the majors in DRS and fourth in the majors in FanGraphs’ Defense statistic. The infield with Kendrick and Rollins is better, as expected, but the notable improvement is in the outfield, which is third in the majors in DRS (+13). A year ago, the Dodgers' outfield was ranked 22nd.

Yes, Adrian Gonzalez looks like an MVP candidate. The rookies, Pederson and Alex Guerrero, are raking. Veterans Kendrick and Andre Ethier are rejuvenated, and on the mound Zack Greinke has been as brilliant as Clayton Kershaw has been human. But if you want to find the biggest reason why the Dodgers have opened a four-game lead in the National League West, look to the defense.

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“And when you talk about our defense,” Bundy says, “it’s all centered around Joc, because now we have guys playing in their natural positions after last year we went through a bunch of guys out there [in centerfield], from Matt to Andre to Scotty [Van Slyke]. Andre did a nice job for us, but he’s not a natural centerfielder. Puig, athletically, is great, but he’s not a natural centerfielder. I know one thing now: When the game starts, we feel good about having Joc in center. When you have a guy that is a natural centerfielder who knows what he’s doing, it makes it so much easier for the corner guys.”

Says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly: “You go back to the beginning of the season, and it was Joc’s defense that made it a lot easier knowing to bring him up to start the year—seeing him in the minors, we knew that he was going to be good out there, and even if he struggles offensively a little bit early, defensively he’s going to be a big part of it. It was defense first. He was going to make our team better up the middle no matter what. If he struggled at the plate, so what? The bat coming along as it did was kind of a bonus.”

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Pederson in center has made the team stronger defensively, but so too has their evolution into a more data-driven organization under new president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. One area in which the Dodgers have adapted is the way they’ve used data to dictate their defensive positioning. The information that Mattingly and coaches like Bundy (who is in charge of the outfielders) receive from the front office is more detailed than in the past. Bundy receives a new set of information before every series, then sits down with each of his outfielders and discusses how he’ll be deploying them in different situations—it changes based on the pitcher, the hitter and the count. The data may be more detailed, but the key for Bundy is that doesn’t become more complicated for the players.

“In fact, I think it’s simpler, the way it’s presented,” he says. “Not that you have to sell it, but when I sit down with Joc or Yasiel or whoever, if they get a good visual of what we’re trying to do, it makes it easier. So now instead of stuff with spray charts and lines, we have a simple color-coded system—basically the color is based on where the players hit the ball. It’s very simple and concise.” Bundy is always making adjustments during a game and sometimes signals to his outfielders from the dugout. “Really, everything starts with Joc,” Bundy says. “When he’s in the right spot, then I can shift to Yasiel, or whoever else.”

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The positioning has helped Pederson—“Sometimes, they hit a ball and you don’t even move, and it’s like, ‘Wow,’” he says — but Pederson also possesses the instincts to make plays others don’t. Mattingly talks about how he’d walk out onto the fields during spring training and see Pederson working on running down fly balls with his head down. “That’s something that used be taught but you don’t see it as much anymore,” says Mattingly. “It works especially on a ball that’s crushed, a ball you have to go a long way for. He works on it. All spring training long, we’d hit balls deep and he’d run to spots where he think it’d end up.”

Pederson is only 50 games into his major league career, and there is still much room for him to grow at the plate. But in the field, he is already, quietly, a star, and one who makes the Dodgers that much more dangerous.

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