Late at night on June 30, the Cubs on a six-game losing streak that would grow to 11 and sink their season, Joc Pederson sent a text: He was ready to talk.
He was back home from Milwaukee and feeling encouraged. The team was having a brutal go of it, but he was more hopeful than he’d been in a long time about the biggest weakness in his game: hitting lefties.
In the ninth inning of a 2-1 loss the night before, he’d roped a 1-2 slider to right-center for a base hit off Brewers closer Josh Hader, the ultimate left-handed beast. Two days before that, he’d doubled off the great lefty Clayton Kershaw in a 7-1 loss at the Dodgers.
To Pederson, it meant a ton.
“I still haven’t even hit my prime,” the 29-year-old, on a one-year free-agent deal with the Cubs, said. “I still feel like I’ve got a lot of years left. It’s why I bet on myself and came here.”
He signed with the Cubs to unburden himself of a dirty descriptor: “platoon.” Not since 2015, when he made the All-Star team as a Dodgers rookie, had he gotten more than scattered opportunities to start against fellow lefties. Of the 62 games he has started against lefties in his career — 2015 to 2020 with the Dodgers and 2021 with the Cubs until Thursday’s trade to Atlanta — 23 came as a rookie and 11 came with the Cubs. That’s more than half.
Pederson has more than five times as many career plate appearances against righties, and the home run gap is 132-9. But six of those homers off lefties happened in 2015.
“From there, it just went downhill,” he said. “It spiraled because I never faced them. It made things more difficult. Where I’m at now is I’m extremely impressed with myself, and there’s still so much growth [to come] there. I feel comfortable in the box against lefties.”
Pederson can’t know yet if the Braves — without injured star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. for the rest of the season — will give him a full chance. If they don’t, this trade will hurt him. If he’s right about where he was headed, this trade will be regretted by the Cubs.
“It’s not like I’m going to be a superstar against lefties now; I haven’t played in five years against them,” he said. “But it’s something I haven’t even tapped into. I took five years off, not by choice.
“If eventually I do the same thing [against lefties] as against righties, that’s an MVP. If I don’t do as much but I improve, that’s an All-Star. What I do against righties is elite. If I can do the same or a little less against lefties, who knows?”
Pederson hit .271 — with no homers — against lefties as a Cub before being traded for prospect Bryce Ball. He hit .218 — with 11 homers — against righties. All told, he bounced back from a terrible April and became a dangerous hitter. And Chicago got under his skin.
“I love Chicago,” he said. “It’s been amazing. The fans are awesome. Wrigley Field is awesome. It’s been a great experience. I’m really glad that I signed here, and I enjoy everything.”
His time with the Dodgers took a toll on him. Their determination that he wasn’t an everyday player never felt fair or just.
“It was the first time I’d really failed,” he said. “Baseball is an interesting game when it’s not that you’re not as skilled or anything, it’s just the frustration builds and builds and you care so much that you want to do something. It makes you play worse.”
Along the way, an interaction with Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman offended him. By 2018, Pederson was striking out far less than he had earlier on. Friedman said to him in the dugout one day, “Oh, man, the growth you’ve had. If someone told me you’d make such a crazy improvement putting balls in play, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Pederson replied, “Well, I could’ve made that kind of improvement against lefties if I had the opportunities.”
Around that time, Pederson hired a mental-skills coach whom he still employs. He has learned a great deal.
“I have a lot of fun out there,” he said. “I think when I was younger, I took it so seriously and stressed about it so much that my life wasn’t fun. Not that I was depressed, but I was grinding all the time where I was like, ‘I’m not going to play baseball and be like that. I’m going to enjoy myself or I’m not going to be able to put the uniform on.’ “
It’s a Braves uniform for him now. The Cubs just might rue the day they traded him.