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Pedroia, Crawford, and the Value of Great Defense


His last few games aside, Dustin Pedroia has been slumping at the plate this season. Given the high standards he has set with his previous performances, nearly two months of merely league average performance at the plate is hard to watch. Yet, Pedroia is still ranked 6th in wins above replacement (WAR) for all second basemen and forth among AL second basemen. His twelve stolen bases have been a big factor, but the main reason the popular overall metric still has Pedroia among the league’s best is his glove.

Red Sox fans do not need me or any advanced defensive metric to tell them Dustin Pedroia has been amazing on defense thus far this season. The 2008 Gold Glove winner has made his fair share of highlight reel plays and has only one throwing error and one fielding error on the season. His excellent range routinely has him sliding this way and that to field balls that seem to have passed him by already. Even from his knees, he makes sharp on-point throws each and every time.

The metrics may not be needed, but it is safe to say that agree in full. UZR has Pedroia 8th among all major leagues in runs saved per chance and seven in total runs saved. He has been worth over half a win by WAR on defense alone. Total Zone agrees. With six runs saved, the second best mark for a second baseman, Pedroia has been picking it anyway you want to put it. UZR fluctuations and small samples sizes aside, the excellent fielding has helped keep his value up, even as he strikes out almost twice as often as he has throughout his career. 

I bring all this up because during the 2010 off-season the Red Sox made a lot of noise about moving toward a better defensive team. Last off-season, the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford, player who has been among the best defensive players in the game. Crawford has struggled even more than Pedroia in the batter’s box and as of yet, he has not looked like the truly elite defensive player he was in Tampa Bay either. While he may not look like that elite defender we expected, Carl Crawford has been good thus far defensively making 36 out of zone plays already, good for 10th in baseball. CC may be adjusting to the wall and playing with Ellsbury and Lowrie, but his defensive abilities are still there and still working for the Sox. When he does get fully comfortable in left, he will keep runs off the board at a prodigious rate, minimizing his struggles at the plate, be it now or anytime in the future.

When you build your team around players like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, you are going to suffer if they stop hitting for a time. There is an old cliché in baseball that goes, "speed doesn’t slump." The understanding is that fast players are always going to be fast. I am not sure if defense can "slump" or not (it would make sense that it can slump) but it seems clear to me that building a team around great two-way players certainly minimizes the chances of stagnant play on both sides of the ball. Pedroia aside, the team still has not yet reached its potential defensively, at least considering the track record of guys like Crawford, Gonzalez and Youkilis. These guys have had to make adjustments and yet they are still playing fairly well. When they fully settle in to their new homes, I think we can expect to see greater run prevention help to lift our pitching staff up.

We will need to see greater run prevention. In the month of May the Red Sox sported the highest wOBA of any team in the league (.361), due in part to a BABIP of .317. They outscored every other team this last month by good margin. Of course, they have a great line up and they are not about to become the lowest scoring team in the league. Still, their pitching and defense have been hovering around average all year. Last season, we had the second best offense in baseball, average pitching and poor defense. This season, we should do better in the field and to win the division we will have to.