In a loss to the Milwaukee Brewers this week, Joc Pederson slugged two home runs only to discover, upon returning to the Dodgers’ clubhouse, that Adrian Gonzalez had snatched his phone.
Gonzalez dangled it out of reach while Pederson reached in vain. Eventually, Gonzalez surrendered it with a warning.
“You better not talk about your homers after a loss,” he said.
“I won’t,” Pederson vowed.
It was a reminder, one of many, that Pederson is still a rookie, though that’s been hard to tell by watching him play. After the Dodgers’ 2-1 win in a rain-shortened game against the Rockies on Friday, Pederson was third in the National League in home runs with nine. In one recent stretch, all seven of his hits were home runs.
That home-run streak, and the fact that Pederson seems only to homer, walk or strike out, created a wealth of unusual stats. In that span, Pederson had 31 at-bats, eight walks and 16 strikeouts. His batting average on balls in play was zero. He now has as many singles as home runs.
The seven home runs were a freak occurrence, but not exactly a fluke. Pederson ranks fifth in the major leagues in hard-hit ball percentage at 46%, according to fangraphs.com. That puts him in good company: He is behind Alex Rodriguez, Brandon Moss, Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton. He is one spot ahead of Mike Trout.
“We didn’t know we were going to get this much power,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said. “Obviously the power is there, but to get it this early.... “
Teammates have tried to keep Pederson in check.
On Thursday, after Pederson singled to break the streak, Mattingly said a player is never relieved to have missed out on a home run. But, he said, “I think it was good for him. He was starting to take some grief in there.”
Pederson wasn’t so sure the hit would change much.
“I get a hard time for about everything,” he said.
The ribbing is part of life as a rookie, but also a way to ensure Pederson doesn’t focus too much on home runs at the expense of quality at-bats.
Mattingly said the location of Pederson’s home runs have encouraged him. All three of his home runs against the Brewers went to center field. That tells Mattingly that Pederson’s bat is staying in the strike zone.
And Pederson has shown discipline at the plate, picking good pitches to swing at. Those two factors, Mattingly said, mean Pederson’s strikeouts will come down. Nothing, he said, has indicated Pederson has fixated on home runs.
“I think we have enough people around here to keep him thinking the right way,” Mattingly said, adding, “He’s a guy who’s trying to hit the ball hard somewhere. If he hits it, it usually goes.”
Pederson led the Pacific Coast League in home runs last season, with 33 in 121 games, but that league is famously hitter-friendly. In the major leagues, power can take time to develop. Kris Bryant, who hit 43 home runs in double-A and triple-A last season and was the preseason favorite for National League rookie of the year, has gotten off to a fine start with the Cubs. But he hasn’t hit a home run.
Yet Pederson has connected even after getting fooled. Last week, against the Giants, he lifted a ball nearly off the dirt and blasted it into the stands.
“I just try to put a good swing on it,” Pederson said.
Of course, it would be unwise to admit otherwise. So far, Pederson has said the right things.
After his two-home-run game, once he regained possession of his phone, Pederson was asked by reporters about the blasts.
“Gonzo got on me” for not hitting three, he said. Then he caught himself.
“But no,” he said, “it’s a tough loss and we’ve got to come back tomorrow ready to play.”