The Hunt for Sedona Red Joctober

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In the second half of the 2023 season, three players shared designated hitting duties for the Arizona Diamondbacks: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Tommy Pham, and Evan Longoria. Three more started multiple games at DH: Dominic Canzone, Kyle Lewis, and Buddy Kennedy. By mid-November, none of those players remained with the organization. The D-backs quickly replaced Longoria, trading for veteran third baseman Eugenio Suárez in November. A few weeks later, they re-signed Gurriel. However, neither move fully addressed the hole at DH; Suárez will slot in at the hot corner, while Gurriel should start most days in left field. The Diamondbacks still needed a regular designated hitter, and late last week, they finally found their guy in Joc Pederson.

Pederson will earn $9.5 million in 2024, with a $14 million mutual option ($3 million buyout) for 2025. If both sides pick up their end of the option, the deal will max out at $23.5 million over two years, quite similar to our crowdsourced estimate of two years and $24 million. In the more likely scenario where one side or the other declines the option, Pederson will earn $12.5 million for a single year of work, almost perfectly in line with Ben Clemens’ prediction of one year and $12 million. That is to say, nothing about this contract comes as much of a shock.

For the second year in a row, Pederson came in at no. 48 on our Top 50 Free Agents list, though that says a lot more about the overall quality of the 2024 free agent class than Pederson himself. Indeed, there is no denying that the veteran slugger took a big step back this past season. His power numbers dropped off, his BABIP fell down to earth, he grounded into a career-high number of double plays, and his outfield defense was somehow even worse (on a per-inning basis). Thankfully, his excellent performance in 2022 gave him a long way to fall, and he was still a productive bat with a 111 wRC+:

Joc’s Fall-Off
2022 .247 .310 5 -15 -11 146 2.1
2023 .182 .268 12 -5 -4 111 0.6

At the same time, the letdown for Pederson went beyond the numbers. Simply put, this is a man who has grown accustomed to success. In each of his first eight big league seasons, his team won the division crown. In 2020 and ’21, he won back-to-back World Series titles. And even in 2022, when he missed out on the postseason for the first time in his career, he was a starter for the NL All-Star team, a finalist for the Silver Slugger, and a top-10 hitter in baseball (min. 400 PA) by wRC+. In 2023, for the first time in his career, Pederson was nothing more than a mediocre player on a mediocre team. There are certainly worse things to be in this world, but surely he signed with the Diamondbacks hoping for a bounce-back season and another shot at playoff glory.

If Pederson is looking to get back to October, he’ll have a pretty good chance with the reigning NL champs. As for more personal success, he is reportedly counting on that as well. According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the 31-year-old told the Diamondbacks that he wants to “restore his value before re-entering the market next offseason.” To that end, Rosenthal suggests Pederson wants to “show he is more than a platoon DH,” either by spending more time in the outfield or more time in the lineup against left-handed pitching.

Unfortunately for Pederson, his goals and the team’s might be at odds with one another. If the D-backs are going to make the playoffs, they have little room for error in the division or the Wild Card race. In other words, they can’t afford to let him work through his various struggles, the way a rebuilding team might. Over the past three years, Pederson has racked up -29 DRS and -21 OAA in 289 outfield appearances. Meanwhile, he has a career 73 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. He’s been slightly better recently, posting a 99 wRC+ over the past three seasons, but the sample size is small (221 PA) and his .320 BABIP is sky-high by his standards. His 11.3% walk rate in that span is genuinely impressive, but his 26.7% strikeout rate and .121 ISO are decidedly not.

What’s more, the Diamondbacks already have several outfielders ahead of Pederson on the depth chart, namely Gurriel, Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, and Jake McCarthy, with Dominic Fletcher and Pavin Smith around as additional depth. Meanwhile, the righty-batting Emmanuel Rivera has stronger career numbers and ZiPS projections than Pederson against left-handed pitching, and should get in the lineup against southpaws, whether as the DH or at third base with Suárez taking over DH duties.

Thus, until he surprises us all and proves otherwise, Pederson remains a platoon DH. And a platoon DH can still be a valuable contributor! The grumpy cloud-yellers of the world might hear “platoon DH” as nothing more than lazy millennial nonsense. “In my day we had to bat and field! All you have to do is hit, and you can’t even do that? Typical lefty mindset.”

However, it’s more than possible for a player to be productive in a part-time designated hitter role – he just really has to mash. Consider Brandon Belt last year, who posted 2.3 WAR on the back of a 138 wRC+. The Blue Jays slugger only played in 103 games, taking 404 plate appearances and barely playing the field, yet he was one of the 50 most valuable position players in the American League. I’m not trying to suggest that Pederson can pull a 138 wRC+ out of his back pocket, but (a) it’s not out of the question and (b) he doesn’t have to be a 2.3-WAR player to merit his $12.5 million salary and reestablish his value for next winter. For what it’s worth, Pederson’s .368 xwOBA in 2023 was nearly identical to Belt’s .369 wOBA, and Belt had the platoon advantage slightly more often. If Torey Lovullo can shield his new DH from as many lefties as possible and Pederson makes the most of his powerful swing, he could be a pretty valuable player even in a limited role.

Indeed, there are a couple of good reasons to think Pederson can improve upon his 111 wRC+ in 2024, and if you’ve read anything about him this winter, you’ve probably already heard what I’m about to say: his plate discipline was excellent last year, and his quality of contact was absurd. He has increased his walks and decreased his strikeouts in each of the past three seasons, but he took the biggest step forward in 2023, walking 13.4% of the time, striking out just 20.9% of the time, and putting up the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. Therefore, while his BABIP dropped from .310 to .268, his OBP only dropped by five points, from .353 to .348. On a similar note, Pederson continued to pummel the baseball. His wOBA fell from .373 to .331, but his xwOBA increased by a point, ranking among the top 10% of hitters in the game. He also placed in the 90th percentile or higher in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, while crushing not one, not two, but three baseballs harder than he’s ever hit a baseball before in his life.

For the most part, those are promising signs, but still, there’s reason to be wary of his excellent underlying numbers. For one thing, pitchers threw Pederson fewer offerings in the zone last season than ever before. Different sources measure the strike zone in slightly different ways, but Sports Info Solutions, Statcast, and Pitch Info all agree that Pederson’s zone rate was a career-low, ranking among the bottom 12 hitters (min. 400 PA) in baseball. To his credit, opponents were presumably exercising caution after his monster offensive season in 2022. At the same time, those pitchers are sure to adjust. After all, Pederson didn’t swing and miss any less often in 2023, and his chase rate dropped but not by much. He did good work to lay off the pitches he needed to, but counting on one of the lowest zone rates in baseball to maintain a high strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t the most sustainable approach.

As for Pederson’s quality of contact, it’s worth noting that his barrel rate wasn’t quite as impressive as his exit velocities and hard-hit rate. That’s especially true when you break his performance down by pitch type. He set a career-high in hard-hit rate on breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2023, while his hard-hit rate against fastballs dropped closer to his career average. Yet interestingly, his barrel rate on breaking and offspeed pitches fell dramatically:

Pederson’s Contact Quality by Pitch Type
Pitch Type Avg. EV HH% Barrel%
Breaking/Offspeed 90.3 48.50% 8.20%
Fastball 93.5 55.80% 15.90%
Pitch Type Avg. EV HH% Barrel%
Breaking/Offspeed 88 37.30% 15.50%
Fastball 95.5 61.50% 14.90%
Pitch Type Avg. EV HH% Barrel%
Breaking/Offspeed 88.4 37.10% 8.80%
Fastball 93.5 52.00% 12.60%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

A big part of the problem? Pederson pounded breaking and offspeed pitches into the ground. That’s not to say he didn’t hit the ball hard in the air as well, but his hard-hit rate on breaking/offspeed groundballs was a whopping 46.6%; his previous career high was 30.8%. In other words, he inflated his hard-hit numbers on pitches that resulted in a .204 wOBA and .265 xwOBA. Additionally, Pederson hit more flares and burners last year than ever before, which helps to explain why his xwOBA was still so high when his barrel rate wasn’t. Flares and burners often lead to hits – they have a higher wOBA and xwOBA than solid-hit balls – but they aren’t the most sustainable method of success.

All that being said, it’s worth repeating that Pederson still boasts excellent plate discipline and elite raw power, even if he isn’t one of the very best hitters in the game. The Diamondbacks, who ranked ninth in the NL in walk rate and ISO last season, could certainly use his skill set, especially against righties. Other than Carroll, the heavy hitters in their lineup all prefer facing left-handed pitching:

Diamondbacks Career Splits
Player OPS vs. LHP wRC+ vs. LHP OPS vs. RHP wRC+ vs. RHP
Eugenio Suárez (R) .844 126 .770 106
Christian Walker (R) .803 115 .787 110
Ketel Marte (S) .874 131 .763 105
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (R) .813 117 .782 111
Gabriel Moreno (R) .870 135 .687 91

Pederson caught my attention early in his career. I’ve always been fond of players who break the mold, and I was impressed by his surprisingly effective outfield defense despite so many signs that he shouldn’t be a center fielder. He didn’t look like your typical center fielder, he didn’t run like your typical center fielder, and best of all, he didn’t swing like your typical center fielder; he walloped the jalopy out of the baseball. How often do you see a guy with 95th-percentile exit velocity, 41st-percentile sprint speed, and 3 OAA in center field? That was Pederson in 2016.

Needless to say, Pederson is no longer a valuable glove, but he still has my attention nonetheless. Multi-talented players are terrific, but sometimes it’s just as much fun to watch a player who’s really, really good at the few things he does well. Pederson knows how to work the count and crush the ball against right-handed pitching, and that’s exactly what the Diamondbacks are asking him to do.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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3 months ago

Believe you have this sentence flipped:
The Diamondbacks, who ranked ninth in the NL in walk rate and ISO last season, could certainly use his skill set, especially against southpaws. Other than Carroll, the heavy hitters in their lineup all prefer facing right-handed pitching:

Should read:
The Diamondbacks, who ranked ninth in the NL in walk rate and ISO last season, could certainly use his skill set, especially against righties. Other than Carroll, the heavy hitters in their lineup all prefer facing southpaws: