A Rookie of the Year candidate in Dodger blue? That's not unusual, but Joc Pederson stands out for his maturity, defensive polish and throwback blend of power and speed. Get ready, Mike Trout: You're about to share the SoCal stage
SUNSET OVER Dodger Stadium, and the sky is tinted cotton-candy pink, the mountains and palms beyond the wavy roof in leftfield beginning to fade to black. The ushers with their clip-on ties and boater straw hats squeeze through the aisles; Vin Scully is at the mike, Nancy Bea at the organ, and the old Dodger with the silver hair and royal-blue polo shuffles to his second-row seat along the third base line. He's a step slower these days, but Tommy Lasorda, who turns 88 in a few months, is still as fired up as ever about the old ball club. Someone says that it's a great time to be a Dodgers fan, and the former L.A. manager roars back, "It's always a great time to be a Dodgers fan!"
Good vibes pulse through Chavez Ravine on this cool May night, and later, after the Dodgers have rolled to their 10th win in 12 games and stretched their lead in the NL West to five games, Lasorda will acknowledge that, yes, there is something about this team, and something in particular about the new kid in centerfield: Joc Pederson, the 23-year-old rookie who won the starting job during spring training.
From the day Lasorda met Pederson five years ago in rookie ball, Lasorda was in love: with the home run swing, short and sweet like Robinson Cano's; with the kid's instincts in the outfield and the way he chases fly balls with his head down to maximize initial acceleration, "the way it used to be taught," says Lasorda; with the fact that Pederson (whose father, Stu, was drafted by the Dodgers in 1981 and spent eight years in the organization) has bled Dodger blue since he was a boy growing up in Palo Alto. "He's a throwback to the days when we had 30/30 guys—the combination of power and speed, you don't see that in the game anymore," says Lasorda. "He's going to be a star here for a long, long time."
Pederson grabbed baseball's attention with a home run binge—seven of his hits in a row over a 10-day stretch beginning on April 27 were homers—but he does more than bludgeon baseballs. He is a key part of the third-highest-scoring offense in the league (Pederson, hitting mostly leadoff, had a .382 on-base percentage through his first 43 games, 12 home runs and a .928 OPS) and an elite fielder at a premium position ("As far as getting to baseballs, he's already one of the best out there," says third base coach Lorenzo Bundy). And on a $270 million team, in a clubhouse of guarded, high-priced superstars like Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez and Zack Greinke, the youngest player on the team adds a critical element: comic relief. As part of their rookie hazing, the veterans have sent Pederson on Starbucks runs dressed in full uniform and hijacked his walk-up songs, leaving Pederson to approach the batter's box not to his usual hip-hop—Drake, Snoop Dogg and, of course, Yung Joc—but to boy-band classics from New Kids on the Block, One Direction and Hanson. "He's a rookie. It's our duty to embarrass him as much as possible," says infielder Justin Turner. "But he can handle it like he can handle a 95-mph fastball."
Of course, in this town baseball phenoms come and go like Hollywood ingènues; the famous ex-manager knows this better than anyone. Lasorda managed nine NL Rookies of the Year in his two decades as a skipper—"Nine! Can you believe that?"—and while some found stardom (Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Piazza), others underwhelmed after their smashing debuts (Steve Howe, Todd Hollandsworth). For the Dodgers' newest next big thing, the game tonight in L.A. would serve as a microcosm of his young career, with moments of greatness obscuring lapses of youth: Pederson struck out for the 40th time in 31 games; he was caught stealing for the fourth time in six attempts; he committed another base running gaffe that nearly cost the Dodgers the game (thrown out trying to advance to second with two outs, nullifying a run)—and then made up for it all with a two-out, go-ahead RBI single in the seventh inning, helping the Dodgers win again. On nights like this, yes, you can believe that Joc Pederson will be the Next Great Dodger. You also cannot ignore the mistakes and his logic-defying stats. How much longer can this Season of Joc last?
IT'S A long season, and you've got to pace yourself," Pederson says as he pats a towel on a nasty slasher-film gash above his left knee, the product of a mistimed slide into second. It's past 11 p.m. at Dodger Stadium, and Pederson, sitting at his locker, is a combination of exhausted, contemplative and edgy. He's just 50 games into his major league career, and while Pederson looks his age—blond and boyish, 6'1", 215 pounds with room still to grow—he also has some of a veteran's seasoned weariness. He looks at the gash again and shrugs, "Just part of the game."
Unlike many of his teammates, the rookie isn't in a rush to get home. He's typically one of the last players to leave the ballpark. After each game he spends 15 minutes in the video room dissecting his at bats and notable plays, though he has become better at not overanalyzing the game. Early on in the minors, when he was a young prospect 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 and certain things that make me different."
"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. Pederson covers the field like Novak Djokovic covers a tennis court, "even though he's not a flier—he's not a Billy Hamilton," says Bundy. "But his instincts and his positioning put him in a position to make plays." The Dodgers, under a new data-driven front office headed by former Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, have been more aggressive this season with strategic alignment of their fielders—but more than anything, it's Pederson's aptitude, refined through his daily work, that makes him exceptional. "He works on it," says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "There wasn't a day during spring training that he wasn't out there working on making sure he's at his spots when a ball is hit out to him."
Pederson's defense was the reason the Dodgers were confident that he could take over for All-Star Matt Kemp, whose trade to San Diego in December was the key move in the Dodgers' winter overhaul. The team shipped out All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon and replaced him with veteran Howie Kendrick, plucked Jimmy Rollins from Philly and committed to a rookie with 28 major league at bats to replace Kemp, one of their biggest offensive stars. That in turn allowed Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier to leave centerfield and focus on the corner outfield positions they are better suited to. The moves were intended to make the Dodgers more athletic, more versatile and better defensively, and that defense has been a big part of the Dodgers' winning formula thus far: One of the worst fielding teams in baseball in 2014, L.A. through Monday ranked eighth in the majors in Fangraphs' comprehensive defensive metric, Def., compared with 20th last season.
"When you talk about our defense, it's all centered around Joc," says Bundy, "because now we have guys playing in their natural positions. When you have a guy that is a natural centerfielder who knows what he's doing, everything falls into place."
Pederson's glove has been a difference-maker in L.A., but it's his bat that has gotten the most notice. Pederson is not big like Giancarlo Stanton. His stroke is short, simple, stripped of all frills, and he generates power with his hands—"Fred Lynn hands," Mashore says, "with enough strength in them that even if his body is out of position, he's still able to put the barrel on the ball with authority." Pederson's power hasn't come out of nowhere; he had 33 home runs in 121 minor league games last year. He seems only to homer, walk or strike out (through 43 games, he had almost as many homers as singles, along with 31 walks and 53 strikeouts), and while April's home run blizzard was unsustainable, there are indicators that his overall start is for real. Not only was he reaching base at an impressive clip, he ranked 22nd in the majors in hard-hit-ball percentage, not far below established mashers such as Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera.
"The power has come sooner than we thought it would," says Mattingly. "The strikeouts are too high, but the thing is, he's getting on base. The patience is there. The approach is there. All the signs point to him only getting better."
PEDERSON LIVES with his childhood friend David DiPaola and DiPaola's girlfriend, Kelsea Smith, in a condo in Sherman Oaks, a sleepy San Fernando Valley suburb a 30-minute drive from Dodger Stadium. It's not the place you might expect a single 23-year-old to land in L.A., but Pederson's choice to stay away from the glitzier parts of town makes perfect sense to anyone who knows him. "If you're young and living in L.A., if you want to make time for it, you can be partying every day," says DiPaola. "But that's not who he is."
Away from the park, Pederson is a fairly typical 23-year-old, who shops for dinner at Whole Foods, unwinds by playing Call of Duty and has the TV tuned to SportsCenter at all hours. "We were watching ESPN when Bryce Harper had that three-home-run day," says DiPaola, "and we saw the first one, and he's like, 'Oh my God. That's unbelievable.' And I'm like, 'Well, Joc, you hit two home runs tonight—that's pretty cool too!'"
Part of his daily ritual away from the park is to call the people he refers to as "my mentors." They include his father, who lives with Joc's mother, Shelley, in Palo Alto, and Mashore, who was Pederson's outfield coach last year at Triple A Albuquerque, where Pederson was the first 30/30 player in the Pacific Coast League in 80 years. "It's part of his process and part of what makes him successful," says Mashore. "He listens to everyone, figures out what's going to work for him and applies it."
One of those voices belongs to a bellowing octogenarian baseball icon. Pederson began working with Lasorda on minor league fields soon after the Dodgers drafted him in the 11th round in 2010. Last year they started going to Clippers and Lakers games together, and out to dinners ("Italian—always Italian, of course," says Pederson), where Uncle Tommy tells old baseball stories over plates of pasta. Now that the kid's a major leaguer, the long talks have been less frequent, but when they come, the old manager's message is usually simple, and Pederson has taken it to heart.
"I'm just 50 games into my career, and pretty much everyone here has 10 years on me," says Pederson. It's nearing midnight in L.A., and Pederson looks around at an empty clubhouse. "So far it's been cool, it's been fun, but I just have to keep learning." He repeats the words of the baseball lifer: "It's not how you start—it's how you finish."
A VERY GOOD YEAR
A handful of prospects born in 1993 or later have appeared in the majors, but the youngest players making the biggest impact are the ones turning 23 this year. Joc Pederson and Mookie Betts (page 50) are just the tip of the born-in-'92 talent wave.
Bryce Harper OF, Nationals
In his fourth season, Harper is starting to meet the sky-high expectations that have followed him, leading the NL with 16 homers and a 1.198 OPS.
Noah Syndergaard RHP, Mets
The righty Mets fans call "Thor"—a first-round pick acquired from Toronto in 2012—has 16 strikeouts and five walks in three promising big league starts.