Joc Pederson’s Taken the Difficult Step

It feels like ages ago, but back when he was a high-level prospect, George Springer was absolutely fascinating. In Springer, the Astros had a phenomenal athlete with almost unparalleled bat speed. But Springer’s game also came with a lot of swinging and missing, whiffs to such a degree that there were real questions about how he’d be able to handle the bigs. You know how this has gone: Springer has established himself as a quality outfielder, after having dramatically improved his contact skills. Getting better at contact is not an easy thing to do, but Springer made himself an outlier, and now he’s a star.

Springer’s big gain came between 2014 and 2015, and this year he’s actually taken another step forward, in terms of getting the bat to the ball. As a rookie, Springer posted baseball’s very lowest contact rate. As a rookie himself, Joc Pederson posted baseball’s sixth-lowest contact rate. There’s long been concern about Pederson’s own ability to make consistent contact. His swings and misses could get exploited, but Springer demonstrated improvement could be possible. And now Pederson is following in Springer’s footsteps.

The Dodgers just lost pretty badly, but Pederson at least did something of note. Facing a good heater in the bottom of the fourth:

One thing you might notice is that Pederson almost knocked himself off balance. No one would ever accuse him of, say, shortening up and swinging at anything less than 100%. But that being said, that’s a quality inside fastball and Pederson turned it completely around. That’s not an easy home run to hit, and it’s a home run he might not have hit a season ago. I’ll get into that, but first, how about an eye-opening rolling-average plot of Pederson’s contact skill?

joc-pederson-contact

If you know one thing about contact rate, you know it tends to stay pretty steady. It’s one of those numbers that stabilizes fast, and the way we understand things, there’s generally an inverse relationship between contact and power. You hear about players who sell out for homers. You hear, less often, about players who might do the opposite. Pederson’s contact is up. He hasn’t sacrificed any of his pop. Where Pederson last year hit the ball with two-thirds of his attempted swings, lately he’s been flirting with 80%. Pederson has gone from exploitable in this regard to almost league-average.

Time for perspective! Comparing last year and this year, Pederson is presently sitting on a contact rate that’s gotten better by 10 points. We have 15 years of information, and over that span, there are 3,259 cases of players who have batted at least 250 times in consecutive seasons. Here are the 10 biggest year-to-year gains in contact rate:

Contact Rate Improvements, 2002 – 2016
Player Year 1 Year 2 Y1 Contact% Y2 Contact% Change
Bill Hall 2004 2005 69.0% 79.7% 10.7%
Joc Pederson 2015 2016 66.7% 76.7% 10.0%
Karim Garcia 2003 2004 69.5% 79.2% 9.7%
Austin Kearns 2006 2007 74.1% 83.8% 9.7%
Jason Bay 2004 2005 66.8% 76.5% 9.7%
Jose Cruz 2005 2006 69.9% 79.5% 9.6%
Barry Bonds 2003 2004 76.2% 85.8% 9.6%
Carlos Quentin 2007 2008 70.0% 79.3% 9.3%
Jason Michaels 2004 2005 76.3% 85.5% 9.2%
Mike Sweeney 2006 2007 75.7% 84.7% 9.0%

The point isn’t that maybe, just maybe, Joc Pederson could turn into the next Bill Hall. The point is that these gains are extremely rare, and we haven’t seen something of this magnitude in a decade. If you were to expand beyond the top 10, you’d find George Springer in 12th. His contact rate improved 8.5 points. Of note: Miguel Sano is up almost six points. Kris Bryant is up five points. They’ve also faced contact questions, and to some extent they’ve answered them. By this measure, at least, Pederson’s answer is perhaps the most emphatic.

One thing that’s true is that, compared to last year, Pederson now is being platooned more heavily. That does work in his favor, but still, against righties alone, Pederson’s contact rate is up 11 points. And here’s what I find even more striking: Brooks Baseball defines “hard pitches” as fastballs and cutters. Against those hard pitches last year, Pederson made 68% contact. This year he’s at 84%. It hasn’t been nearly so easy to just blow the ball by him, so where Pederson was one run above average against those pitches, now he’s already at +11. He’ll still whiff, and he’ll still whiff against the best heat, but that’s not uncommon for anybody. As a hitter he’s just more complete these days.

Here are Pederson’s contact heat maps against hard pitches. He’s a lefty and these are from the catcher’s perspective, so he’d be standing to the right of these plots.

joc-pederson-contact-hard-pitches

You can see improvement just about everywhere. Pederson is simply better prepared for fastballs now, and if you look at the inner part of the plate, you can see a big gain, which might have powered his homer against the Pirates on Sunday. Maybe last year he could’ve turned that pitch around. Maybe he would’ve hit it out to center. Pederson didn’t never make good contact inside as a rookie. Just on averages, though, he makes more contact inside, and he also makes better contact inside. As lefties go, Pederson now has top-10 exit velocity against inside pitches, patching what had been a bit of a hole.

Pederson’s swing patterns haven’t budged much. The better overall contact rate is fueled by both better in-zone contact and better out-of-zone contact. Now, you don’t want to make a habit of putting out-of-zone pitches in play, but getting the bat to those balls can help to keep a hitter alive. If you foul one off, it buys you another opportunity. Every pitch matters, as pitch-framing statistics have argued. Something interesting here is that I don’t think Pederson’s actual swing has evolved a lot. Some swings do look shorter than they did last season, but Pederson’s average 2016 swing looks mostly the same. He’s toyed with his leg kick. There have been slight adjustments to the hands. And Pederson did spend the winter looking for a consistent attack. But this looks a lot like just better prep. Pederson still has a big, powerful swing. But if you better understand when a fastball could be coming, you can plan for better timing. You can get around on those pitches in, because you’re braced for them.

I’m sure Pederson could say more about how he’s adjusted over time. His second-half slump was something ugly, and it called for a response, which Pederson spent his offseason constructing. If there are subtle changes, well, there typically are, and Pederson couldn’t afford to do nothing. But he didn’t change the core of his swing. He still has the strength and bat speed that first put him on the radar. Joc Pederson now swings a lot like the Joc Pederson of 2015. He’s just now putting the swing to better use. He’s become a more dangerous threat in the process.

We hoped you liked reading Joc Pederson’s Taken the Difficult Step by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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You mentioned Springer but I would think that J Baez (Cubs) would fit very comfortably on the list that you cited. Was he excluded due to not enough PA? Where would he otherwise rank on that list?