As far as silly and offbeat sports stories go, it would be hard to top the fantasy football spat between Reds outfielder Tommy Pham and Giants outfielder Joc Pederson. Last week, Pham — who annually leads the league in umbrage taken and who has already made headlines this year by challenging Luke Voit to a fight — drew a fine and a three-game suspension for slapping Pederson in a pre-game confrontation. Not stopping there, earlier this week, he dragged league commissioner Mike Trout into the dispute. It’s all rather comical, but lost in all of this beyond his characteristically bemused response to the whole matter is that Pederson is off to a terrific start with the Giants, putting up some eye-opening numbers.
Before we go further — and then I promise you that we’ll move onto baseball — here’s Joc explaining his side of the football story for those of you whose attention was elsewhere:
Joc shares details of what happened in his fantasy football league that started his altercation with Tommy Pham today pic.twitter.com/d9NBTwPVoG
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) May 28, 2022
Moving along… After winning a World Series ring for a second year in a row (with the Dodgers in 2020 and then with the Braves last fall), Pederson joined the Giants via a one-year, $6 million deal in mid-March. It was the second year in a row that he had to take a slight pay cut, but then neither of his last two seasons had been up to par. He entered 2020 as a career 119 wRC+ hitter who beyond his cup-of-coffee 2014 season had only once slipped below 116 (100 in an injury-marred 2017), but he hit just .190/.285/.397 (86 wRC+) with -0.2 WAR in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and then .238/.310/.422 (93 wRC+) with 0.3 WAR last year for the Cubs (who signed him to a one-year, $7 million deal) and Braves (who acquired him in mid-July).
Pederson more than made up for his in-season struggles in both 2020 and ’21 by hitting a combined .282/.341/.474 with five homers in 85 PA in the two postseasons — Joctober is his month — and, improbably, introducing pearl necklaces as a fashion accessory for men. His three-run pinch-hit homer in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Brewers’ Adrian Houser provided all of the runs the Braves needed to close out that series, and his two-run homer off the Dodgers’ Max Scherzer in Game 2 of the NLCS helped send his former team to defeat. The necklace he sported as a good luck charm became so famous that he donated it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Braves’ gaudy World Series ring even featured a single pearl as a tribute to his iconic display.
In joining the Giants, Pederson figured to see action primarily as part of a left field platoon, with right field and designated hitter possibilities as well, and so far things have gone according to plan. He’s started 22 times in left, eight at DH, and six in right, with all but one of those starts coming against righties. The Giants have used four different players as his platoon-mates in left, a situation necessitated in part by Brandon Belt landing on the injured list twice (once for COVID-19, and currently for knee inflammation) and righty-swinging Darin Ruf getting a share of the work manning first base in Belt’s absence.
So far, few things have gone as right for the Giants this year as the Pederson signing. The 30-year-old slugger has hit .268/.340/.583 with 12 home runs, including three in a wild game against the Mets on May 24, a career first and a first for a Giant at AT&T Park. While his total of 144 plate appearances leaves him 11 short of qualifying for the batting title, his slugging percentage ranks fourth in the National League among players with at least 140 PA, and his 157 wRC+ ranks fifth. Those 12 homers are a team high and tied for sixth in the league; the 13 other players in the NL with at least 10 homers all have at least 189 PA, and 10 of them have at least 200.
That’s a strong enough showing as it is, and it owes something to the extent to which manager Gabe Kapler has shielded Pederson from facing lefties, a necessity given his career .207/.283/.328 (68 wRC+) line against them through 509 PA; by comparison, he’s hit .239/.342/.496 (125 wRC+) in 2,634 PA against righties. Just 12 of his PA (8.3%) have come against lefties this year, a share he approximated in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season (7.2%) and the year before that (9.7%), the only one in which he qualified for the batting title. Last year, when he spent the first half of the season playing for a Cubs team that was going nowhere by design, he took 23.3% of his PA against southpaws and did alright (.265/.348/.378, 98 wRC+) — not that you’d bank on him to repeat those numbers. The Giants, who as Baseball Prospectus’ Robert Orr explained exceeded expectations last year in part by creating advantageous matchups based on swing planes and pitch shapes in addition to handedness, have nonetheless kept Pederson from what has traditionally been his kryptonite.
Dig down another layer below his slash stats, and Pederson’s performance becomes even more impressive. He’s absolutely scalding the ball, with the majors’ fourth-highest average exit velocity (95.0 mph) and barrel rate (20.8%) — below only those of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Trout — and fifth-highest hard-hit rate (56.4%). He’s always hit the ball hard, with average exit velocities of 91.2 mph or higher in every season but that aforementioned, injury-plagued 2017, when he nonetheless averaged 90.1 mph. Likewise, he’s always had barrel rates of 10% or higher save for 2017 and ’18, and hard-hit rates in the 75th percentile or higher every year except for those two as well.
What’s really amazing is that based upon his batted ball stats, Pederson could be doing even better. He’s generally been pretty close to his Statcast expected numbers, but not so much this year, though there’s a lot of that going around with the deadened baseball. Using Statcast’s qualifier cutoff (2.1 PA per game), he’s “only” 20th in wOBA-xwOBA differential, but he’s got the third-largest shortfall among the 14 hitters with at least a .400 xwOBA. Among Stacast qualifiers, he’s “only” 42nd in SLG-xSLG differential, but within that group, he’s sixth:
Statcast Expected wOBA Leaders
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
For Pederson, that xwOBA standing is particularly noteworthy because it includes not only batted balls but also walks and strikeouts. Recall that when he first reached the majors, he had a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, striking out 170 times (29.1%) as a rookie. He’s reined that in, even while becoming more aggressive and chasing more pitches outside the zone yet making more contact:
Joc Pederson Plate Discipline
Pederson’s 4.9-point drop in strikeout rate is only the 27th-largest in the majors this year, but he’s never been below 20% before. His aggressiveness has cost him some walks, but the power has made it pay off.
Relative to the past two seasons — his wilderness years — Pederson has cut his swinging-strike rate against all of the major pitch types except for changeups:
Joc Pederson by Pitch Type, 2020-22
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
We’re dealing with some small samples here, which is why I’m showing the expected stats as well as the actual ones, but the take-home is that he’s faring much better against four-seamers, sinkers, and breaking balls of both types, though his results have lagged a bit behind expectations. The gaps between his expected and actual results on cutters and changeeups mostly offset each other, and so far this year he has a .400 xwOBA or better against all pitch types but the last of those. For a player who’s generally been rather vulnerable to breaking balls in his career, that’s a big improvement.
For Pederson, this step forward seems to be more mental than mechanical. As The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly wrote, his three-homer game was preceded by a long pregame chat with Barry Bonds that helped him improve his focus on each plate appearance, to the point of bypassing a chance at a record-tying fourth homer in favor of a more situationally-aware approach that produced a game-tying single in the bottom of the ninth off Edwin Díaz. “It was probably the best hitting conversation I ever had,” he said afterward. More via Baggarly:
“I’ve hit two home runs in a game before and then that third one, you’re kind of pressing,” Pederson said. “It definitely crosses your mind. For some reason tonight, I was thinking the same thing that we talked about before the game — the same thing that I did in the first two at-bats. So I thought that was pretty cool, to be able to stay in the moment in a situation like that.”
…Pederson did not hit a fourth homer. But he hardly squandered his chance. He looked at a 101.2 mph fastball and a 99.7 mph fastball and then he whistled a slider into center field.
“Against probably the best closer in the game right now, I didn’t get too big,” Pederson said. “I was able to put a nice swing on a tough pitch. It would have been easy to try to hit a fourth home run and roll it over and the game’s over.”
Pederson’s step forward calls to mind the results that the Farhan Zaidi-Gabe Kapler Giants have gotten in the past couple years with newcomers such as Ruf and LaMonte Wade Jr. as well as holdovers like Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Evan Longoria. We’ll see if the slugger’s early-season results can hold up to the extent that it did for those players, many of whom have had career years on this regime’s watch but have since regressed; baseball is, after all, a game of adjustments. For now, Pederson has made his, and he’s thriving, and regardless of the weird headlines in which he’s winding up, his bat is the real story.