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Dustin Pedroia needs to repeat as the Red Sox table-setter

Dustin Pedroia’s on-base abilities were key for the Red Sox in 2016, and they should mostly return in 2017.

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I certainly can’t speak for anyone but myself, but this seems like one of the least exciting offseasons for the Red Sox in recent memory. The way I see things, the roster is mostly set, and I can’t see too many fireworks coming this winter. It’s not like past years, when the rotation desperately needed firepower at the top and we were all anticipating those big moves. This year, there could be some big moves in the bullpen or to replace David Ortiz. However, it seems more likely (again, by my view) that they will go with mid-tier options in both areas and go into next season with a roster that looks very similar to the one it does now.

Whatever happens, the fate of the 2017 Red Sox is likely to lie on the backs of the core that already resides in Boston. It’s a fool’s errand to predict something as specific as lineup order at this point on the calendar, but it seems early with this team. I think it’s fair to expect the top of the lineup to look mostly the same as the end of the 2016 season, with Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts starting things off. While I’d personally prefer Betts to hit second instead of Bogaerts, that is picking nits. It’s the leadoff man, Pedroia, I’d like to focus on.

As we all know, the top spot in the lineup isn’t his usual spot, and it wasn’t where he began last season. He spent most of the year hitting second behind Betts, where he has also spent most of his career. In fact, there have been rumblings in the past that he’d prefer not to hit first. When the lineup hit a slump, however, John Farrell shook things up and the offense got back to normal. Some of that was surely regression back to the mean, but Pedroia was undeniably successful in his new role.

Despite whatever hangups he may or may not have had about leading off, it didn’t show in his production. He ended up with 213 plate appearances out of this spot in the lineup, and hit .362/.394/.457. Pedroia was a huge part of the lineup all season, and was particularly important as the table-setter, consistently getting on base and setting things up for the rest of the dynamic offense. The Red Sox should be good offensively again in 2017, but their second baseman and leadoff man will need to be similar if they want to be elite again.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As I said, Pedroia was good all season and not just in that leadoff role. While staying healthy all season and accruing 698 plate appearances (11th most in baseball), he hit .318/.376/.449. The power bounce-back got most of the headlines all year, but it was his on-base ability that really carried most of his offensive value. Pedroia finished the year 19th among qualified hitter in OBP. He did it, however, more on the back of a strong average than impeccable patience. The question is whether or not that is a repeatable skill?

For the most part, it should be. Part of Pedroia’s high AVG was certainly due to a career-high batting average on balls in play, which one would reasonably expect to come down. More on that in a minute. The other part of it was his low strikeout rate, which should be more sustainable. At a time when strikeouts are higher than ever, Pedroia was set down by way of the K just over ten percent of the time, the seventh lowest rate in baseball. While it’s a little lower than the past few years, it’s right in line with where he’s been for most of his career, and it’s safe to assume he can stay there again.

So, most of that .318 average will be sustainable just by virtue of putting the ball in play more than just about every other hitter in baseball. The BABIP, as previously mentioned, will come down some. His .339 mark was the 23rd best mark in the league. Now, to be fair, that’s not a totally outrageous number, as 22 qualified batters have maintained a BABIP at least that high over the last three seasons. On the other hand, Pedroia had never reached those heights.

The good news, though, is that any expected regression shouldn’t be very extreme at all. To start, the second baseman has never posted a full-season mark below .297, and hasn’t fallen below .300 since 2009. On top of that, he was a distinctly better hitter last season than in previous years, spraying line drives and hitting the ball with more authority. He truly looked like the hitter he was in his prime again. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus had his line drive rate up in 2016, and the former had his hard-hit rate up higher than ever. It’d be fair to expect him to take a step back in these areas next year as he’ll be a year older, but he should still finish with a BABIP in the .310-.320 range, keeping his overall AVG above .300.

Pedroia could make up for that small loss by making a small gain in walk rate. His 8.7 walk rate was not bad, per se, but it was merely average. Unfortunately, it will be tough for him to make any real leap in this area. He’s a contact-oriented hitter who hits in a deep and terrifying lineup. This means pitchers will not want to pitch around him and put him on base for his supporting cast. The combination of his contact skills and pitchers throwing him strikes makes it hard for him to draw walks, despite his ability to control the zone.

All things considered, Pedroia should once again be a strength atop the lineup, even if his OBP is likely to come down just a bit. Given the loss of David Ortiz, the Red Sox lineup is due for a small step back this year. The rest of the crew should be back, though, and this includes the trio atop the lineup. With Pedroia likely returning to the leadoff spot, the offense is off to a good start.