He's only a 23-year-old rookie, but this California kid has already shown — through his work ethic and performance — that he can handle anything the majors might throw at him.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse, which is occupied by some of the biggest stars in the baseball universe, can be a tough place for a rookie. Veterans seem to delight in giving young players a hard time with jokes and pranks. On Rookie Dress-Up Day two years ago, for example, they made Yasiel Puig wear a Gumby costume and Hyun-Jin Ryu dress up as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
The Dodgers have been particularly hard on their new rookie centerfielder, Joc Pederson. They make Pederson lug the clubhouse speakers on road trips. They hijacked his walk-up song, leaving Pederson — a hip-hop fan — to approach the batter's box to boy band hits from One Direction. And on a road trip to Chicago, they made Pederson go on a Starbucks run in full uniform and cleats. Bystanders stared as he walked out juggling 10 drinks.
"We like to try to embarrass him as much as we can," says third baseman Justin Turner. "It keeps things light in the clubhouse. And we can do it because we know he can handle it."
When it comes to the pranks and the constant ribbing from his teammates, the rookie is as cool as he is when facing an All-Star pitcher on the mound. "It's part of the territory," Pederson says with a shrug. "I'm a rookie who hasn't played a full season yet, and guys all around me here have played 10 years. I just try to learn from them."
Pederson may talk like a humble rookie, but he hasn't played like one so far. Over the season's first two months, Pederson has been one of the best players on a Dodgers team that jumped out to a lead in the NL West. No rookie in the majors made a bigger splash than Pederson, who became the talk of baseball with a jaw-dropping home run binge: Seven hits in a row over a 10-day stretch beginning April 27 were home runs.
He does more than bludgeon baseballs, though. He is a key table-setter for a potent Dodgers lineup. (He had a .392 on-base percentage through May 28.) He's also elite in centerfield, one of the most important positions. "We knew he was a good player," says manager Don Mattingly, "but we honestly didn't think he would make such a big impact so soon."
Ask those who know him best what has launched Pederson on the path to stardom, and they'll tell you the answer is simple: hard work. Pederson takes nothing for granted. After games, he's typically one of the last Dodgers to leave. He stays around and watches video of his at bats and notable plays, and he is constantly thinking about how he can get better. "When he gets information and digests it, he's a workaholic at it until he gets it," says Dodgers minor league hitting coordinator Damon Mashore.
Mashore recalls one session in the California League in which he and Pederson talked about taking your eyes off the ball while running to your spot. "He was like, I want to do that; what time should I be there tomorrow?" says Mashore. "He started showing up at 10 a.m., and we did 30, 40 minutes of that drill for six days so he could master it."
Pederson covers the field like Novak Djokovic covers a tennis court "even though he's not a flyer," says third base coach Lorenzo Bundy. "But his instincts and his positioning put him in a position to make plays."
Pederson's glove has been a difference-maker, but his bat has gotten the most notice. His stroke is short, simple, and he generates power with his hands. "Even if his body is out of position, he's still able to put the barrel on the ball with authority," says Mashore.
Pederson dissects games on video, but he says he has gotten better at not overanalyzing. To hear him tell it, this has been the biggest difference for him as he's gone from a prospect rated outside the top 50 by some to one of the game's best young stars.
Early on in the minors, when he was struggling to find his swing, Pederson would stay up all night on his phone, watching at bats of major league stars on YouTube — Mike Trout, Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista — and then show up at the park the next afternoon with an ill-considered new timing mechanism.
"I'd have no idea what the thinking was behind what they were doing," he says. "I've realized now that there are certain things that make Mike Trout special, certain things that make Robinson Cano special. And certain things that make me special."
Pederson has been obsessed with his swing since he was a kid spending hours in the hitting cage behind his home in Palo Alto, California. He learned the importance of hard work from his father, Stu, who was drafted by the organization out of USC in 1981 and played eight games for L.A. in '85. The Pedersons bleed Dodger blue: Joc's brother Tyger, an infielder, was a 33rd-round pick by L.A. in 2013.
The Dodgers selected Joc in the 11th round in 2010, out of Palo Alto High, and his stock quickly rose. By 2014, he was the organization's minor league co-player of the year, having become the first player in 80 years to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season in the Triple A Pacific Coast League. He was called up to the majors last September and played in 18 games, then won the centerfield job in spring training. Says Mattingly, "You have to keep reminding yourself that he's still just learning, that he's only going to get better."
This season has been a whirlwind for Pederson. He's getting used to big league pitchers, new ballparks — and the shenanigans from his teammates. But he takes it all in stride. "It can be hard to catch my breath sometimes," says the rookie, "but it's been a fun ride so far."
Photos: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images (batting), Victor Decolongon/Getty Images (dugout), Morry Gash/AP (fielding)