Joc Pederson finds calm despite his reduced playing time
It was an indelible image from last year’s World Series, Joc Pederson soaring around the bases after his Game 6 home run, screaming and pounding both fists on his chest, the Dodgers outfielder so euphoric he said he almost blacked out circling the bases.
“It was unforgettable,” Pederson recalled this week, “but the memory seems a little distant right now.”
Pederson, 26, has to strain his eyes to see that summit from the valley in which he now stands. A near hero in the World Series with three homers against the Houston Astros, Pederson has been reduced to a bench player scrambling for at-bats.
Three years removed from an All-Star rookie season in 2015, two years removed from a 25-homer, 68-RBI season in 2016, Pederson is so hungry for playing time he’s been working out at first base, a position he’s never played before, in an effort to increase his versatility.
As humbling as it has been for Pederson, the Dodgers see his demotion as an opportunity for growth.
“I think he needed this,” third-base coach Chris Woodward said. “Throughout his career, he was so good at every level, and he had early success in the big leagues, that it kind of leads to an ‘I’m-good-enough’ attitude. Not that he didn’t work hard, but I think he was a little content at times.
“You see him now, he doesn’t take anything for granted. Me and [manager Dave Roberts] were talking about this. The first time you’re kind of tested and you have to earn your playing time … I’m not saying he didn’t earn it before, but he’s definitely earning it now.”
The left-handed-hitting Pederson started 137 games in center field in 2015 and 114 games there in 2016, his power — he had on-base-plus-slugging percentages of .763 in 2015 and .847 in 2016 — helping to offset his lengthy slumps and a combined 300 strikeouts in both seasons.
The emergence of leadoff man Chris Taylor as an offensive force and a competent center fielder pushed Pederson out of his spot midway through 2017, and Peterson’s extended slump and the acquisition of Curtis Granderson led to a demotion to triple-A in August.
Pederson revived his career with his World Series outburst, batting .333 (six for 18) with three homers, two doubles and five RBIs, his three-run shot highlighting a 6-2 win over the Astros in Game 4 and his solo shot capping a 3-1 Game 6 win.
But the surprise emergence of left fielder Matt Kemp as one of the team’s most productive hitters this month pushed Pederson to the bench again—Pederson has started eight of 23 games and is batting .217 with one homer and six RBIs entering Friday night’s game at San Francisco.
“I’m going to make the best of the situation no matter what,” Pederson said. “I think by fighting it, by telling yourself it’s tough, it doesn’t put you in the right mind frame to maximize the opportunities you get. So being more positive, I think, will always be better than being negative about any situation you’re in.”
Pederson’s Zen-like approach has impressed his bosses.
“I haven’t seen one moment where he’s kind of pouted,” Woodward said. “I’m proud of him because he’s sticking to it every day, he’s sticking to a swing that he feels will give him productive at-bats when he’s not getting playing time, which is probably the hardest thing to do in baseball. His at-bat quality has been really good, his attitude is really good, his preparation is really good.”
Pederson started consecutive games for the first time this season last weekend and homered off Stephen Strasburg in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Washington. He drew a seven-pitch, pinch-hit walk to start a tie-breaking seventh-inning rally against Miami on Tuesday night. He had two hits in Wednesday’s loss to the Marlins.
“His swings are better, they’re under control, they’re consistent,” Woodward said. “He hit a tough pitch off Strasburg. That was huge for us. He’s staying in the zone, not swinging at balls.”
With the offense struggling, Roberts can’t afford to sit Kemp, who is hitting .313 with four homers and 12 RBIs. But Pederson could play more at the expense of right fielder Yasiel Puig, who is batting .195 with no homers and six RBIs.
“Joc’s work has been very professional, very consistent … he’s handled [his role reduction] really well,” Roberts said. “I’ve talked about his at-bat quality. So going forward, I’m going to make more of an effort to get him some more starts.”
Woodward believes Pederson’s tenure as a utility player will be temporary.
“I don’t see him being a backup player his whole career,” the coach said. “He’s too talented.”
Pederson, who is making $2.6 million this season, remains confident about his future with the organization that drafted and developed him.
“I believe in myself, I know I belong here,” Pederson said. “I’m gonna get some opportunities, and I’m gonna be prepared for those. … You can always look at the future and try to predict, but the game is so crazy, a lot of crazy things happen.”
Like Kemp, a player the Dodgers had every intention of trading this winter, emerging as a No. 3 hitter. And Pederson rising from the rubble of a brutal 2017 to star in the World Series after not making the playoff roster in the division series and playing sparingly in the championship series.
“I guarantee you no one would have bet on me when I was in triple-A to do what I did in the World Series,” Pederson said. “It’s me versus myself, really.”
Talent has never really been an issue with Pederson. Finding a consistent approach and swing that leads to consistent production has been the biggest challenge, one that, oddly enough, Pederson seems to be gaining with the least consistent playing time of his four-year career.
“Yeah, it’s been a strange start to the season, and I’ve already been through a lot in my career, but it makes me a better person,” Pederson said. “There have been some high roads and some failures, you know?
“I’m learning why I’ve struggled at times and how to be a consistent every-day player rather than a two-week best player in the league and a two-week worst player in the league.”
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