2016 was a fun ride for a great many reasons, even if it ended with a quick exit from the playoffs. It saw the emergence of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. proving himself to be very real indeed, a Cy Young season from Rick freaking Porcello, the debut of Andrew Benintendi, and of course a last magnificant hurrah for David Ortiz.
Yes, last. No, pocket tweeting the Boston Globe is not significant no matter how crazy people got over it. Stop being silly.
There are other stories I haven’t mentioned, one of which was the return of Dustin Pedroia as we once knew him. 2015, for all its ugliness, thankfully proved that Pedroia’s unfortunate 2014 season was not the beginning of an early end. But after two seasons saw him miss over 90 games, there was real reason to wonder if the second baseman’s body was starting to fail him.
After 2016, it feels like those fears should largely be put to rest. Not only did Dustin Pedroia play in 154 games, but he did so while hitting at a level that has eluded him for a while now. Only once in the previous four seasons had Pedroia’s on-base percentage exceeded .356, and in that year—2013—Pedey was mired in what would be the beginning of a two-year power-outage. 2016 saw him match or exceed the best marks he’d produced since a 2011 campaign that remains far-and-away the best of his career.
There’s something to be said, I suppose, for context. It’s perhaps the case that the pitching just wasn’t as good in 2016. While Pedroia’s 116 OPS+ was also the best he’d managed since 2011, the gap between it and his other more recent seasons (excepting, again, the ugly 2014) is pretty damn small.
But if Pedroia’s offense is simply scaling to keep up with the league, that’s noteworthy in its own right. Because much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, guys do not typically age like David Ortiz. We’ve had our scares with Pedroia, too. It was easy to read inevitability into his declining numbers from 2011 onward, particularly with the injuries mixed in.
Instead, Pedroia has completely reversed course, and it’s certainly worth mentioning that it doesn’t have to be the case that the pitching is worse. It’s entirely possible that the young bats entering the game have been pushing that average up instead. We certainly have enough evidence of that in Boston. At worst, Pedroia has managed to keep up and stave off the signs that tend to emerge around this point in a player’s career that they’re slowing down. At best, he’s showing he’s ready to keep up with the new kids in town.
This will not be the case forever. When the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, much was made about a three-year window. That period was chosen because that’s how long Sale is under contract for, but it’s also probably not a bad estimate for how long Dustin Pedroia can keep playing at a particularly high level. If he started into an actual gradual decline next year, nobody could be surprised to see him start to fade at 33. Certainly when he first signed that lengthy contract extension to carry him all the way into 2021, most expected that the relatively modest salary and the surplus value early on would be what made it a bargain for the Red Sox, not Pedroia playing like an All-Star at 37.
That could still happen, of course. David Ortiz is a strange outlier, and Pedroia wouldn’t even have to be nearly as odd as he to still be just as good at 37 as he is now. But an outlier he would still be. And while the Red Sox could still use him even if he was only half the player he is now (given the state of the farm system, they might well need him at that), the true cliff tends to come not far after.
There is no hard-and-fast window on Dustin Pedroia just as there is no hard-and-fast window on the Red Sox’ ability to contend. But there is a window, and it is closing, however shortly. Looking back at 2016 and David Ortiz’ retirement, it was a strangely sudden thing, for all that it should not have been given the man’s age. Quickly the story of the season became “win one more for Papi,” but with only one chance available to them, and the playoffs ever fickle, the Red Sox didn’t manage that.
They might well not have with 3 years, either. Or 10. Or 86 as we here in Boston well know. But for all that, three years with an excellent team certainly provides better odds than one. There’s no imminent retirement tour demanding that it be 2017, and I’m sure to fans elsewhere who have franchise favorites who have never seen the World Series, much less celebrated two wins, the idea of pushing for one more for Pedroia might seem as ridiculous as pushing for one more for Ortiz. Hell, there’s plenty of other fan favorites right here that are without rings, particularly amongst the new young guns.
Still, that’s going to be part of the story for me over these next few years. These next few years are important because they might well be Boston’s best chance for a World Series over the next ten, even if they don’t fall into ruin at the end, but because of the implications of who won’t get another best chance afterward.
Just some cheery thoughts on a cold winter afternoon.