Down in the Cactus League, there’s a prospect who’s absolutely terrorizing pitchers, possibly presaging a National League Rookie of the Year season.
"Yeah, yeah," you say, "I know all about Kris Bryant." Well, Bryant may be the unquestioned story of spring training this year, but this isn't about him. The Dodgers’ Joc Pederson isn’t far behind, and could end up ahead of the Cubs phenom when it's all said and done this year.
If it weren’t for Bryant, Pederson would be stealing all the headlines; the 22-year-old outfielder is hitting .415/.455/.732 with three homers, four doubles, two steals and eight RBI in spring training. Last year, the Dodgers kept Pederson in the minors because of the outfield logjam, and had he struggled this March, Los Angeles may have been tempted to once again run Andre Ethier out there with Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford. After the spring he has put together, that will not be the case. Instead, Ethier will be the best-paid fourth outfielder in the league. Pederson has to have an everyday spot in the lineup.
It was the crowded outfield, and nothing else, that kept Pederson at Triple-A Albuquerque for essentially all of 2014. If the decision were based on performance, the entire front office would probably be looking for work. Pederson slashed .303/.435/.582 with 33 homers and 30 steals at Albuquerque last year. It would be silly to read too much into his results when he was a September call-up last year, but there are two things worth noting. First, he went just 4-for-28, and didn’t have an extra-base hit. Second, it appears he has made one major change this spring that could help him have more success in the majors.
As Pederson was rocketing through the minors, he had a pretty typical setup at the plate, with his top hand basically at ear level. He had a bit of a leg kick during the load phase, but he put the leg back down without taking much of a stride. You can see that in the photo below from the Dodgers' spring training game in March 2014 and the gif below from Albuquerque’s game against Sacramento on May 8.
That swing resulted in his ninth homer of the year. Fast forward to the end of the season, just about a week before he was promoted to the Dodgers, and you see the exact same setup (apologies for the video quality, minor league video streams are always a crapshoot). Pederson got the exact same result, belting this pitch over the fence for his 32nd homer of the season.
Let’s contrast that with Pederson’s setup at the plate this spring, while recalling that his most recent baseball experience was that dreadful 38-plate-appearance sample from last September, his only time in the majors. This is from a March 8 game against the Brewers.
Look how much lower Pederson’s hands are. They’re at about chest level rather than up near his ear. He still has the same leg kick without a stride during the load phase, but his hands have less distance to travel to get to the ball and into the hitting zone. In fact, when I saw where Pederson’s hands were, I couldn’t help but immediately think of another player who made a nearly identical adjustment: Anthony Rizzo.
Like Pederson, Rizzo was a highly touted prospect from the moment he put on a professional uniform. Like Pederson, Rizzo didn’t have many struggles in the minors. When he was at Triple-A Tucson in 2011, still a member of the Padres organization, he hit .331/.404/.652 with 26 homers and 43 doubles. He made his major league debut that season, but struggled mightily, posting a .141 batting average and .523 OPS, ultimately getting sent back to Tucson, where he proceeded to tear the cover off the ball again.
Here’s what Rizzo looked like as the pitcher began his motion back in 2011.
His hands are a little more out in front of his body than Pederson’s were last year, but they’re similarly at about ear height. That season, Rizzo had a 21.5% strikeout rate in the minors. It climbed to 30.1% in his stint in the majors. Rizzo turned just 22 years old late in the 2011 season, but it was clear that if he was going to reach his potential, he would have to cut down on his whiffs.
Here’s Rizzo’s setup as the pitcher goes into his windup the following April, now as a member of the Cubs organization at Triple-A Iowa.
The change is immediately noticeable, just as it is between 2015 Pederson and '14 Pederson. Rizzo’s strikeout rate at Iowa that season dipped to 18.3%. In the nearly 1,700 plate appearances he has racked up with the Cubs, his strikeout rate is a perfectly manageable 18.2%. Pederson struck out 11 times in those 38 major league plate appearances last year. Even as he was dominating at Triple-A, he had a 26.9% strikeout rate. Thus far in the spring, he has fanned 11 times in 44 plate appearances. It’s a tiny sample and a small decline, but a baby step like this is important for a young player’s development.
For the sake of an easy side-by-side comparison, let’s look at a screenshot of Pederson during a spring training game against the Cubs right before Jake Arrieta delivers the pitch, and put it up against Rizzo in an at-bat against Johnny Cueto from last season.
The two hitters are basically in identical spots as the pitch is being thrown. You can probably guess what Rizzo did with this offering from Cueto. Here’s the result of Pederson’s at-bat against Arrieta.
Yes, Arrieta misses his spot by the width of the plate, and a lot of hitters will make a pitcher pay for such a mistake. That doesn’t mean the hitter will drive the ball out of the park to the opposite field. Only the great ones will do that on a consistent basis, and Pederson has that ceiling for his career. As for the 2015 season, he’s on the short list of NL Rookie of the Year candidates. Don’t be surprised if it’s him, and not Bryant, with the hardware at the end of the year.