Last October, Joc Pederson, after tallying four hits over the previous month, was nowhere to be found on the Dodgers’ National League Division Series roster. The Dodgers did not need him to sweep the Arizona Diamondbacks, though he returned for the National League Championship Series and helped the Dodgers advance to the World Series. When he started in the later rounds, he was placed near the bottom of the lineup, never batting higher than sixth.
A year later, Pederson has been front and center in the NLDS, serving as the Dodgers’ spark in the leadoff spot as they’ve built a 2-0 series lead over the Atlanta Braves.
Pederson followed his leadoff home run in Game 1 on Thursday — his franchise-record ninth in 2018 — with a leadoff double off Braves right-hander Anibal Sanchez in the Dodgers’ 3-0 Game 2 victory on Friday. He scored three batters later, when Manny Machado belted a two-out, two-run home run. Two games, two instant leads behind Pederson, who has no explanation for his success leading off games.
“Just try to get a good pitch and put a swing on it, man,” Pederson said. “I don’t know. Just try to keep it as simple as possible.”
Conventional leadoff hitters — the burners from yesteryear — have almost become obsolete in this stats-driven era. The 26-year-old Pederson is not that. But he also isn’t the on-base-machine clubs stick atop their lineups nowadays. He does not hit for a high batting average — this season’s .248 was a career-best — and he doesn’t walk at a high rate. The result: a .321 on-base percentage during the regular season, which dipped to .300 in his 59 starts as a leadoff man. The average on-base percentage across the majors was .318.
But the closest the Dodgers have to the new-age leadoff prototype is Justin Turner, who posted a .406 OBP this season, and the club has decided batting him second, where he has more chances to hit with runners on base, provides more value.
So when the Dodgers face a right-handed starting pitcher, the left-handed-hitting Pederson leads off. His weapon is his mammoth power and it is, for whatever reason, amplified in his first at-bat as a leadoff hitter. Pederson’s eight leadoff home runs during the regular season set the Dodgers’ club record. He added a ninth in Game 1 after falling behind 0-and-2 against All-Star right-hander Mike Foltynewicz. After the game, he was asked if he could explain the success. He was stumped.
“I hit before the game,” Pederson said. “So maybe I’m just a little fresher. I don’t know. So maybe I should start hitting before every at-bat. But yeah, no, I don’t know. I wish I had the answers and been able to do that in other at-bats as well.”
He settled for a double on Friday, just fair beyond Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman’s reach down the line. Dodger Stadium rocked. It exploded when Machado hooked a 3-and-0 cutter over the wall and handed Clayton Kershaw a two-run cushion.
“Getting the lead for one of the best pitchers in the game in the first inning definitely gives us a boost, gives us energy moving forward,” Machado said. “So we’re just excited that we got the lead early on and we’re able to feed off that.”
Pederson is 0 for 6 with a hit by pitch in his seven plate appearances beyond the first inning through the series’ first two games. Frustration boiled Friday, when he scorched a line drive right at second baseman Ozzie Albies to end the seventh inning. He flung his helmet a couple dozen feet.
But a year after watching the Dodgers sweep their way to the NLCS without him, Pederson has fueled the Dodgers’ offense from the jump, giving their pitching staff all it has needed to seize the first two games.