It’s impossible to be a Red Sox fan and not be excited about this offense. They’ve scored double digits in 96 percent of their games (don’t fact-check this) and have a higher wRC+ than any team in league history has ever finished with (you can fact-check this). It’s even more fun that this is run is being fueled by so much youth in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley and Travis Shaw. It’s also fun that it’s being fueled by someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, too, in David Ortiz. Lost in this shuffle is Dustin Pedroia, who has been just as exciting as just about every player not challenging the all-time hit streak record, but has somehow gone unnoticed.
Honestly, I was skeptical that we’d ever see this version of Pedroia again in his career. Obviously, he was still a good player over the last couple of years, but it’s not nearly the same. We of course remember the early-career version of the second baseman when he was among the better players in the league for a six or seven year stretch. Then, he started turning into more of a glove-first player with a solid-average bat as he entered his thirties. Considering his position is one that typically lends itself to steep declines, no one could’ve blamed him if that’s who he was now, but of course things don’t work like that with Dustin Pedroia. He’s turned back the clock and looks a lot like he did in his prime.
He’s now come to the plate 199 times this season, and is currently the proud owner of a .304/.364/.470 slash-line, giving him an impressive 127 wRC+. It may only be the fifth best wRC+ on the roster, but it’s also tied for the 24th best in all of baseball. It would also be Pedroia’s best offensive season since 2011.
Even more impressive than the raw numbers — and the biggest reason for the raw numbers — has been his ability to make hard contact. If we look back at early-career Pedroia, we remember a small dude crushing line drives on pitches in on his hands. It made no sense. That went away the last few seasons, but it started to come back last year and is back completely in 2016. For a guy who always walks around a league-average rate and consistently strikes out less than 15 percent of the time, more hard contact was really the only way Pedroia could substantially improve.
This all starts with his power, which appeared to be disappearing as recently as 2014. As I said, he started showing that bounce-back this year, and he’s now up to a .166 Isolated Power on the young season. If he can maintain this for the duration of the season, it would be his best power year since 2011. Additionally, he’s smacking the ball around for a .333 batting average on balls in play, which would be the highest mark of his career. It may not be entirely sustainable, but he’s shown the ability to hit like this in his earlier playing days.
Either way, there’s no doubt that he is hitting the ball with more authority than ever before. Despite keeping his walk and strikeout rates roughly the same as they’ve been in the past, he’s showing a better understanding of the strike zone in 2016. Specifically, he is swinging at the lowest rate of pitches out of the zone that he has in his entire career, per Baseball Prospectus. On the flip side, he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone than he has in any season besides 2008. Obviously, this approach leads itself to swinging at more hittable pitches, which is turn should lead to more line drives and hard contact in general.
As I said above, Pedroia’s power started to come back last year after dropping off the previous two seasons. I also said that when he’s going well he thrives on pitches in on his hands. That wasn’t just a throwaway comment. Check out his zone profile showing ISO for each part of the strike zone from 2013-2014 compared to the one from 2015-2016.
This gives some credence to explanation that injuries sapped Pedroia’s power in those two seasons, something that I stubbornly and stupidly dismissed.
When Pedroia is going like this, he’s such an important piece of an offense filled with them. Now synonymous with the two-hole in Boston, he’s the best bridge between Betts at the top of the lineup and the power guys behind him. When Betts leads off an inning by getting on base, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Pedroia can at least advance him with a single, giving the middle of the lineup ample opportunity to start the run scoring early. The first inning has been key for the Red Sox offense, and not coincidentally it is Pedroia’s best inning as well. To wit, he is hitting .417/.488/.750 in the first frame.
He’s no longer the best player on the Red Sox, but Pedroia is still really, really good and he’s being overshadowed by teammates on either end of the age spectrum. There’s no reason to pay less attention to the others in this lineup, but Pedroia deserves your adoration too, especially considering the massive role he’s played in getting this team off to hot starts on a nightly basis.