Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson is one of the most improved everyday players in baseball

LOS ANGELES -- Joc Pederson's dismal second half of 2015 led to an offseason of change, and now, the second-year Dodgers center fielder is one of the most improved hitters in the majors.

LOS ANGELES -- In 2015, Joc Pederson stepped into some pretty big shoes, after an offseason trade by the Dodgers sent Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres.

Pederson took the baseball world by storm in the first month of the season, hitting .298 with four home runs, five doubles and 10 RBIs, slugging .596. Then, things fell apart. In May, he hit .236, and then .222 in July. By the time Pederson stepped into the batter's box in Cincinnati for the Home Run Derby, he was hitting .230, with an on-base percentage of .364, and 107 strikeouts to 58 walks.

There were holes in his swing, Pederson says, but beyond that, there were holes, mentally.

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"I was getting pitches, and I was missing them," Pederson says. "I didn’t play well. I sucked. I think the numbers said I was the worst player in the league. It wasn’t very fun."

Pederson finished his rookie campaign hitting .210, and though he slugged 26 home runs and 19 doubles, his contact rate was the second-worst in baseball. Something had to change. 

Pederson went back to his roots -- seeking out his Double-A hitting coach, Johnny Washington, who he came across in his first big league spring training. Pederson and this year's Dodgers rookie sensation -- Corey Seager -- have trod nearly the same path. Pederson's first big league camp came one year before he entered spring as the heir apparent in center. Seager's first big league camp came a year before he entered camp as the heir apparent to Jimmy Rollins. It only makes sense, then, that they would entrust their swings to Wooten.

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"We both went to him," Seager says. "It was never, ‘Hey, go look at this guy.’ We both trusted him after talking to him, individually, and it worked out. He’s made my career, pretty much. He taught me how to look for things, and has made my career, really.”

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"I didn’t perform that well, and [had] a lot of holes in my swing that needed to be cleaned up," Pederson says. "I continued to hit with Johnny Washington and sought out Shawn Wooten, who really helped Corey Seager. I picked his brain a little bit, to see how I could be better.”

To clean up that contact -- or lack thereof -- Pederson focused on playing pepper, to improve hand-eye coordination. He, Washington and Wooten took apart his swing, and found those holes.

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“It was just getting into a better hitting position, getting on-plane, and just getting my shoulders outside of the swing, and creating a good bat path on a consistent basis," says Pederson.

At the start of the season, Pederson worked with Dodgers hitting coaches Tim Hyers and Turner Ward, maintaining those fixes. 

Looking at the numbers, Pederson has improved, but on the surface, only incrementally: He's hitting .238, slugging .465 (up from .417), and has improved his OPS from .763 to .795. Nothing eye-opening, until you look deeper.

That second-worst contact rate in the league? He's improved it by 9%. That improvement is the largest in the big leagues, by a wide margin. The next biggest improvements come from D. J. LeMahieu and Brett Gardner (+6.2%).  Didi Gregorius has seen his contact rate improve by 6%. Slugging Kris Bryant has seen an improvement of 5.8%.

What does that improvement mean, in terms of results? Pederson's strikeout rate has dropped to 25.8% from his career K rate of 28% -- that's the lowest his K rate has been since his Double-A season in 2013, when he hit .278 with 22 home runs and 24 doubles, while striking out 100 times and walking 70. For a power hitter like Pederson, a drop that notable means he's putting his powerful swing on the ball more often, and even more encouraging for Dodgers brass, he's trending in the right direction.

His medium-to-hard contact numbers (percentage of balls he's hit that have been classified as medium or hard, based on exit velocity) has gone from 79.7% last season, to 81.6% this year. His line drive percentage has improved from 15.8% to 18.9%.

Since June 11, Pederson is hitting .274, with four doubles, six hime runs and 14 RBIs in 25 games, slugging .536  with a batting average on balls in play of .304, and an OPS of .894.

Pederson's career batting average on balls in play, before this season, was .267. This year, it's .282, the best of his short big league career. His contact rate inside the strike zone has jumped up to 82.8%, compared to 76.4% in 2015. As pitchers have tried to get the strikeout-prone Pederson to chase, he's improved his contact rate outside the strike zone from 47.6% in his first call-up, to 50.4% in his first full season, to 65.2% so far in 2016. 

His career isolated power (SLG-AVG) was .203, and this year, it's jumped up to .224 -- the second-best of his professional career, behind his .279 mark in 2014 in Triple-A, when he had a .385 BABIP, 33 home runs and a 26.9% strikeout rate.

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“I didn’t know those numbers, but it’s encouraging to hear that. But," Pederson says, "I’ve got to keep going.”

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