Joc Pederson’s Hot Stretch Indicates Either Power Surge or Another Slump

Joc Pederson hasn’t exactly been the Kyle Schwarber replacement everyone was expecting, even if all you were expecting was pretty much the same hitter. The former Dodger has supplied virtually no power, sporting a .077 ISO that’s lower than all but 21 of 228 MLB hitters (min. 90 PAs) this season and his defense has left a lot to be desired as well.

Meanwhile, Schwarber has two walk-off homers and is proving that at least one Nationals reporter knew next to nothing about him prior to his arrival in Washington. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about Theo Epstein’s large adult son when the Nats visit Wrigley next week, so let’s get back to the topic at hand.

If we narrow the focus to the last 10 days, though, we’re starting to get a sense of what Pederson can bring to the table for a Cubs team that has struggled offensively this season. Since returning from the IL on May 4, the outfielder is hitting .444 with 12 hits in 27 at-bats (that’s 10 more hits that the Cubs managed in RISP situations against Cleveland). Four of those hits have come in five at-bats against left-handed pitchers, three more than he’d accumulated in his first 13 ABs against southpaws this season.

Those five total hits against lefties are two more than Pederson had all of last season, even though the Dodgers only let him try it 10 times. But with only 11 hits in 49 ABs two years ago and nine hits in 53 ABs in 2018, it’s looking like he has a chance to establish some better numbers than he’s seen in years.

The only troublesome part here is how the whole .444 average comes with the major caveat that his already-paltry ISO is only .037 during the same sample. Of his 12 hits, 11 have been singles and the other was a double. He hasn’t homered April 7 and the only other ball that really got close was a highly celebrated sac fly. I know a lot of old-school folks will probably be upset that I’m lamenting such a robust average, but Pederson wasn’t signed to slap singles.

If the dude isn’t slugging, and if he’s not playing above-average defense to boot, his value is greatly diminished on more than one front. Whether the Cubs are hoping to compete or looking to sell at the deadline, they need more thunder from that corner outfield spot. They’d honestly be better off with Pederson shaving 200 points from that average — he is at .244 on the season and his career mark is .231 — in exchange for a few more homers.

Please don’t think I’m merely advocating for Pederson to sell out for power, because that’s not it. Not exactly, anyway. His .353 BABIP is currently running 93 points above his career average while he generates hard contact at a 44.2% rate that is within one point of his career mark. To oversimplify it for a moment, he’s getting very lucky right now.

The crux of this whole issue is a 5.8% barrel rate that sits nearly four full points below his career level despite the hard contact. That’s either a sign that Pederson is about to bust out in a big way when it comes to power or that he’s got another ice-cold stretch coming. The best hitters are able to turn even their mis-hits into productive at-bats, but failing to barrel the ball up means that robust BABIP could indicate Pederson’s luck is too good to last.

What could be a positive aspect of all this is that his BABIP was just .194 prior to his IL stint and it’s been an otherworldly .600 since. Even though that latter number is entirely unsustainable, it’s a very good sign that some mechanical adjustments are yielding better results and could portend a more gradual descent as opposed to an ignominious crash.

“Joc’s done great,” David Ross told reporters after Pederson’s latest three-hit effort, his third in the last five games. “He’s pulled his hands in well when they’re trying to pitch him in. He’s stayed on some lefties and is taking some balls up the middle and the other way. It’s been a whole-field approach.”

Hitting isn’t like flipping a switch, but in Pederson’s case it might be like using a rheostat that he’s cranked way up to one side. If he’s able to dial it to the proper setting, we should see the barrel rate and power numbers improve as he elevates some of those singles with more authority. Who knows, that could even improve his confidence in the field.

By the time we turn the page on May, we should know with a little more certainty who Pederson is going to be as a hitter one way or the other.

Update: With three more hits Friday night, Pederson’s season average is up to .268 and his 98 wRC+ indicates he’s almost back to league average in terms of run production. But the thing is, all three hits were singles, meaning 14 of his 15 hits since returning from the IL were good for just one base. As such, his ISO actually dropped again and is at just .032 in that span despite a .484 average and .625 BABIP. His barrel rate dropped as well and is at 5.4% on the season.

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