The Cubs Jam Joc Pederson Into Their 2021 Plans

Joc Pederson has had a strange career so far. In his six-plus seasons in the majors, he’s put together four solid seasons, with WAR totals ranging between 2.7 and 3.5. He’s done it with his bat — his career .230/.336/.470 slash line works out to a 118 wRC+. Because he’s done it on the Dodgers, however, he’s been no more than a platoon bat most years, and so in our heads, he’s mostly just a part-time player.

Over these six years, he’s been roughly as valuable as Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield, or AJ Pollock, all of whom have felt like stars at one point or another. He’s only 1 WAR shy of Michael Brantley, 2 WAR shy of new teammate Javier Báez. It’s hard to fight the lingering sense that he’s never gotten a full opportunity, though. At least, he hasn’t until now — on Friday, the Cubs signed Pederson to a one-year, $7 million deal, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal.

After non-tendering Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs lacked outfield depth, and that’s putting it charitably. Phillip Ervin, who they claimed on waivers in December, was a starter by default. By signing there, Pederson will likely be answering the biggest unknown about his game: can Joc hit lefties?

In 2015, his first full year in the majors, Pederson displayed extreme platoon splits. Lefties bamboozled him, to the tune of a 37.1% strikeout rate and a .295 OBP. Righties, he could handle: he walked 17.3% of the time on the way to a .361 OBP, good for a 123 wRC+. The Dodgers took note; 78% of his plate appearances came against righties. That sounds like a lot, but it actually isn’t; league-wide in 2015, 83% of left-handed plate appearances came against opposite-handed pitching.

Platoon splits take forever to stabilize — we’re talking an order of magnitude more times at bat than Pederson’s 129 appearances in 2015. Watching him hit, however, it was easy to see that something didn’t click for Joc against lefties. In 2016, he fared even worse against southpaws — .125/.250/.219, good for a 35 wRC+ — and that was basically that. The Dodgers gave him only 77 shots at lefty pitching, he crushed righties again, and from then on out, he was a pure platoon bat:

Plate Appearances by Handedness
Year PA vL PA vR % vR
2015 129 456 77.9%
2016 77 399 83.8%
2017 55 268 83.0%
2018 57 386 87.1%
2019 50 464 90.3%
2020 10 128 92.8%

Though he’s only batted 385 times in total against left-handed pitching, he’s fared so poorly — .191/.266/.310, compared to .238/.349/.501 against righties — that my best estimate of his true platoon split is double league average. If you buy his projection for 2021 – a 112 wRC+ — and assume he hits against 83% righties, that works out to a 98 wRC+ bat against lefties and 115 against righties. In other words, he’s mostly what we think of him as — a great hitter against one side of the plate and a poor one against the other.

Quite frankly, that’s a valuable player. Players with weak points teams can conceal tend to be underrated, in my opinion. They’re bad against a particular type of pitcher? Hide them! The Dodgers have always excelled at this, and it helps explain why Pederson keeps piling up statistics despite a seemingly fatal flaw. The Cubs would be well within their rights to do so with Pederson; there’s no rule that says you can’t mask your players’ flaws and give them their best chance to succeed.

On the other hand, we’ve seen so little of Pederson against lefties that there’s a chance he’s a completely acceptable hitter there. Such is the nature of small samples. Ervin, Pederson’s presumptive platoon partner, is projected for an 82 wRC+. They’ve been roughly a wash in the field — though Pederson is slower afoot, Ervin’s arm is a weakness. Should the Cubs simply play the better overall hitter everyday and hope for the best?

I’m not actually sure what outcome is best here, either for Pederson or the team. Extra plate appearances against lefties will make Pederson’s total batting line look worse. If they give him, say, 50 plate appearances that he previously would have ridden the bench for, his seasonal batting line will decline by between one and two points of wRC+, not a huge margin. On the other hand, if he completely flames out against them, the resulting hit to his statistics could be a drag on him next offseason, when he’ll re-enter free agency.

For the Cubs, it’s hardly clear that giving Pederson more comfort against left-handed pitching would make the team as a whole harder to pitch to. The Cubs lineup already has almost nowhere to hide for lefty relievers; sure, you can pitch to Anthony Rizzo, but that’s basically it. Pederson is a second place that teams can deploy a lefty and hope for an easy out, but there’s an easy counter to that even if he doesn’t improve: pinch hit for him. Given the strong right-handed lean of their lineup, a lefty coming in to face Joc might end up facing three righties, a scary proposition.

In other words, while Pederson’s career-long struggle with left-handed pitching is notable, it won’t be a make-or-break referendum on his season in 2021. Whether the Cubs give him those extra 50 plate appearances or not, the vast majority of his production is going to come down to how he fares against right-handed pitching.

2020 didn’t tell us much of anything about that part of his game. It was his worst full-season line, sure, but it was also only 138 plate appearances in total, a minuscule sample. His predictive batted ball metrics hardly budged; his 10.2% barrel rate, 44.3% hard-hit rate, and 112.1 mph maximum exit velocity were all quite close to his average seasonal line. A career-low line drive rate cut into his production on contact, but he only put 87 balls into play; one more line drive, and he’d be roughly in line with previous seasons. None of that explains his .200 BABIP, which mostly looks like a small-sample fluke.

In fact, despite that disappointing 2020, our projections think that Pederson will be the third-best hitter on the Little Bears squad this year, just behind Rizzo and Kris Bryant and narrowly ahead of Ian Happ. Against right-handed pitching — and he’ll face quite a lot of it, with only four lefties out of the 20 projected starters in the rest of the NL Central — that’s a valuable boost to a lineup that otherwise looked a bat or two short.

The NL Central is still up for grabs, even with Nolan Arenado St. Louis-bound. By turning a huge hole — the Mariners cut Phillip Ervin this offseason, so it’s fair to say he probably isn’t a great starting option for a contender — into one of the best bats on the team, Chicago is keeping themselves in the race.

One of the benefits to having a roster with huge holes is that those holes are easier to upgrade. Replacing Ervin with Pederson bumps the Cubs’ win projection by nearly two full wins, according to our Depth Charts projections. That’s a meaningful fraction of what the Cardinals got by adding Arenado, because they’re replacing productive players while Chicago has a lower starting point.

None of this means that Pederson guarantees the Cubs a first-place finish in the Central, or that he makes their offseason so far a success. After all, pitching was already a weakness, and that’s before the team traded Yu Darvish to San Diego. An offseason of subtraction was always going to mute the impact of bringing in talented replacements.

Despite the backdrop, however, I think that Pederson is an excellent signing. The platoon-only label that he’s been fairly stuck with limited his market. The label isn’t wrong! Unless he’s a significantly different hitter than his history shows, his upside is limited.

If his upside is limited to a 3.5 WAR player, though — and given that he’s already put up a 3.5 WAR season, that’s hardly an optimistic ceiling — that’s a valuable signing for a team upgrading from literally replacement level. A Joc-and-righty outfield slot is inarguably better than league average, more or less regardless of who the righty is. That’s quite a value for $7 million.

The Cubs are going to be right in the thick of things next season, Joc or no Joc. For a reasonable sum, however, they’ve replaced a chunk of the production they sloughed off earlier in the winter. Signing Pederson doesn’t mean their work is done, but regardless of their other moves, this one is a savvy way to add wins at a reasonable cost.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Mario Mendozamember
1 year ago

Jock Jam. Damn, you old.