In 2015, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson played his first full season of Major League Baseball, and like many young players, he experienced both highs and lows. Though Pederson has been pored over many times, I’ll be taking information from just a few sources for simplicity’s sake because things may become confusing as we shift slightly away from baseball in a bit.
Craig Edwards from FanGraphs.com wrote about Pederson’s struggles in the second half, noting that his BB% and K% were maintained from the season’s first half while both his BABIP and ISO experienced a steep decline: from .282 to .232 and .257 to .122, respectively.
Edwards also noted that the pitches and sequences Pederson saw were not significantly different before and after the All-Star break, except for a few more sliders with two strikes. A large contributor to Pederson’s decline was his increased penchant for swinging, and missing, at sliders with 2 strikes.
BallEight.com’s Matt Wojciak wrote a similar analysis about a month earlier. In this piece, Pederson was found to be making more soft contact and less hard contact during the second half of the season, resulting in a drop in average exit velocity from 93.5 mph to 89.3 mph, or a difference of -4.2 mph.
It was assumed that the same source of this drop was also decreasing his ability to pull the ball, as his Pull% and Center% dropped from 45.1% to 41.2% and 36.9% to 31.1%, respectively, but I think the correlation is in fact the other way around. Pederson was trying to adapt his approach to use more of the field, and he wasn’t able to hit the ball with quite the same powerful authority while making those adjustments.
It is fair to assume the league adjusted to Pederson’s full-time presence, but the blame of Pederson’s disastrous second half belongs to both Pederson and his coaches. A BaseballProspectus article from May of 2015 praised Pederson’s “beautiful swing” mechanics and called him an “elite young hitter.” This is just one person’s opinion and it came on the heels of two successful months, sure.
But there was plenty reason to think his big swing could continue to be effective, despite not leading to a high batting average.
Here is a look at a couple of snapshots of the season courtesy of MLB.com.
4/12/15: Pederson’s first career home-run
Early on, Pederson sported very high leg kick and a nearly straight back leg. After this game he had a .286 BA, .285 ISO, .946 OPS
Pederson had a noticeably less dramatic stride less than 3 weeks later, and his back leg appears to have slightly more bend. His numbers improved – .298 BA, 298 ISO, 1.057 OPS
2 months later, in the middle of a slump, Pederson’s stance is more or less the same. His numbers fell to a .241 BA, .288 ISO, .913 OPS
One month later: Pederson’s leg kick trended back upward and his stance is more closed, though it could just be the camera angle. His hands are a bit closer to his body, and his bat looks further tilted back. Again, Pederson’s numbers dropped – .234 BA, .242 ISO, .836 OPS
As the season wore on, Pederson’s back leg is bent more, his bat is angled more, and his hands are a bit higher. Now he sat on a .219 BA, .222 ISO, .801 OPS
Now at the end of the season, we see another huge difference. There’s very little stride at all, and Pederson’s bat is flatter than ever. Worse yet, his numbers continued to plummet – .210 BA, .207 ISO, .763 OPS
What Went Wrong?
I think we’re seeing Pederson making more frequent adjustments once he started to struggle. That’s not usually bad, but the response in this case was too extreme. This all is not to say he can’t succeed with any of these particular swings, but Pederson, himself, acknowledged that repetition is key when asked about his struggles.
“I think repeating. Hitting is a feel. It’s a real hard thing to do. You just have to be consistent and repeat what you’re doing. It doesn’t always happen,” Pederson said. “When you break it down (first half and second half), it’s not the same. My body position. Getting to an athletic hitting position is something I need to get better at.”
Being willing and able to make adjustments is a fantastic sign from a young player, but I think changes of this degree are ill advised in the middle of the season. That’s not to say physical changes are always a hindrance; in fact, SBNation detailed the dynamic change in mechanics that created the power-hitting Joc Pederson we know today. It’s no wonder that during the 2015 season, Pederson felt he needed to take the same approach to succeed, but at the major league level, consistency is necessary.
Let’s step away from Pederson just a little bit and take a look at what the brain does.
Inside the Mind of an Athlete
When you swing a baseball bat, your brain is processing an incredible amount of information simultaneously. The stimuli associated with self-produced movements (the swing itself) make up a portion of these signals, but we have a fantastic ability to commit sequences of actions into muscle memory.
We’re all familiar with this concept; it’s a type of memory that develops from repetition and allows us to eventually perform certain actions without much conscious effort. Obviously, every ball player would benefit from having his swing ingrained in muscle memory, so we’ll delve into how this subconscious consistency helps.
Athletes in every sport are susceptible to a phenomenon called “paralysis by analysis,” which is the failure to respond to a situation by over-thinking the context/possibilities. In short, thinking makes you slower, and hitters are required to make split-second decisions at the plate on every pitch. I would propose that allocating as much attention as possible to whether or not to swing is paramount to success.
There isn’t enough time to consciously analyze a pitch’s trajectory before you need to actually start swinging, so the brain makes this choice in an inconceivably small amount of time. Crudely put, the decision is based on its reaction to either a “Go” stimulus or a “Nogo” stimulus. To clarify these definitions, consider a 0-2 pitch. An ugly slider dipping down and away could be considered a Nogo stimulus, while a juicy hanging curve should be a Go stimulus.
A 2005 study from the Kyoto Institute of Technology found that baseball players have shorter Go/Nogo reactions times (RTs) than non-athletes and that higher-skill players demonstrated a shorter Go/Nogo RT than lower-skill players. In addition to this, 2 years of “hitting practice” and Go/Nogo task practice were able to significantly decrease Go/Nogo RT. This finding as a whole suggests that professional baseball players have very refined response inhibition. And MLB players are the best of the best.
Why can they not be able to tinker and still be successful?
To answer this, we look at a study from Beilock, Carr, MacMahon, & Starkes (2002). In two separate experiments, they looked at the impact of allocation of attention on sport-specific motor skills. The first experiment translates better to baseball, so let’s hone in on that.
Experiment 1 had experienced golfers putt a golf ball into a hole under two different experimental conditions and also without any condition to establish a baseline distance from the target. The first condition was skill-focused. Golfers were told to monitor their swing and say “stop” when they completely finished their follow-through. The second condition was a dual-task condition. While preparing to putt and during the put itself, golfers were told to say “tone” when they heard a specific tone (0.5 s) that was mixed in randomly with other tones in 2-second intervals.
They found that the dual-task condition did not produce a notably different distance from the hole compared to the single-task (control) condition. The skill-focused condition, however, significantly reduced the golfers’ accuracy. This is because with experience, skills like putting or swinging a baseball bat don’t require conscious monitoring.
When you physically alter your stance and preparation, you reduce your ability to execute your swing consistently, as your attention shifts to accommodate unfamiliar stimuli. When stimuli change, your brain interprets them accordingly, needing more processing power to execute novel mechanics.
By making changes throughout the season, Pederson was constantly introducing conscious, self-generated movements to his swings. This, in turn, limited his ability to resist swinging at pitches that he was able to take earlier in the year.
In 2016, look for Pederson to hit his stride in the same fashion as early-2015, once he finds a consistent swing.
Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, MLB.com, baseball-reference.com
Images thanks to: MLB.com