HR Derby standout Joc Pederson: Beyond the Batting Average

Watching the Home Run Derby yesterday, we saw Todd Frazier put on an absolute show, but Frazier was the runner-up last year. I think this year’s runner-up Joc Pederson, who hit 13 homers in the first round to advance before the clock even came close to running out, has a Home Run Derby win in his future. I also think as a rookie, Pederson may already be one of the best outfielders in baseball.

Joc is starting the All-Star Game, and there was a big uproar from many people because his batting average is only .230 halfway through the year, but Joc deserves that spot. For those who wonder how a guy hitting .230 should start the game, think back to 2010 when Felix Hernandez sported a 13-12 record for the Mariners and won the Cy Young Award. How could a pitcher with that record possibly win the Cy Young? Well, because he was dominant and pretty much put up amazing numbers in every other stat. It goes to show you how sabermetrics have changed baseball for the better because we can appreciate good players despite misleading numbers. Even though batting average is more useful than pitcher wins, Pederson is a top outfielder in baseball despite his average, and I’m about to tell you why.

Before I dive into the stats, let me say that I would take a team full of Pedersons, especially when he starts to improve his baserunning. The first thing that sticks out about Joc is that he hits the ball hard and far. The average distance on his regular season homers is longer than anyone else in last night’s Derby, and his exit velocity is only rivaled by sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Cabrera. Pederson already has 20 homers, and could end up with close to 40 in his rookie season. Pederson seems likely to hit a lot of homers in his career.

The arguments against Pederson are his batting average and strikeouts. Let me start by saying strikeouts are bad, of course, but in today’s game with the pitchers we have, if Pederson strikes out 170-180 times, it really isn’t the end of the world. Mike Trout struck out 184 times last season and still was the best player in baseball and had a WAR of 7.9! The strikeouts could stay and with Pederson’s power he will cancel them out and then some.

The other argument is his .230 batting average. People still heavily rely on average to judge a player, and it’s really not fair. Average only tells you so much; it’s useful, but not as useful as other measurements. On-base percentage is basically batting average on steroids, because it takes into account walks and hit by pitches, too. On-base percentage is more important than batting average because as long as you get on base, you’re giving your team a chance to drive you in, and the point of baseball is to score more runs than the other team, after all. Pederson sports an on-base percentage of .364 thus far into 2015, largely because of his 58 walks. His OBP is the 30th-best in baseball. If you just use batting average to judge qualified hitters, you’d basically be saying a guy like Yunel Escobar is the seventh best hitter in baseball, or that Gerardo Parra is a better hitter than Pederson despite the fact that his on-base percentage is 20 points lower. We know these aren’t true. On top of all this, Pederson will become a better hitter over the next few seasons in all likelihood and he could be about a .260 hitter who gets on base 40 percent of the time.

Pederson’s wOBA this season is .368, which FanGraphs puts in the “Great” level. Keep in mind that this is Joc’s rookie year and he’s probably still going to get better. wOBA is a stat that attempts to weight your hits, because obviously it’s better to hit a double than a single. Pederson will also always have a high OPS because of his walks and homers. He could have a career like Adam Dunn, only the faster, better-at-defense version of him at worst. Pederson has a good chance to be better than Dunn because he does so many things that Dunn couldn’t on the field and he probably is better with a bat, but hitting-wise Dunn’s career slash was .237/.364/.490, and so far Pederson’s rookie season is .230/.364/.487. Now like I keep saying, Pederson will continue to hit better too.

Pederson is worth a 3.1 fWAR and 2.9 bWAR this year, and a 6 WAR, which is roughly his pace, is a really good all-star. This is Joc’s rookie year. His potential is tremendous.

The real thing Pederson needs to take a step up with his baserunning. He stole 30 bases in AAA last season, but this year he’s just 2-for-7 in stolen bases and he’s worth negative baserunning runs according to FanGraphs. A guy with his speed could threaten a 40-40 season one day and be useful on the bases. Imagine the possibilities of a fast guy who walked a 100 times a year. It could be dangerous. He could be a true five tool player, too. If he improves his baserunning skills, he’s an MVP candidate every year and up on the Mount Rushmore of outfielders with Harper, Stanton, and Trout the next 10-15 years.

So Joc’s showing at the Derby last night was just a glimpse of what’s to come for him. The guy is going to be special, and he’s already one of the better players, so enjoy him and let go of the batting average. Because for Joc, he’s worth so much more.

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