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One Big Question: How long can Dustin Pedroia keep this up?

Dustin Pedroia is entering the latter part of his career, but will the decline be starting soon?

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Dustin Pedroia.

The Question: How much longer is Dustin Pedroia going to be the Dustin Pedroia we all know?

The Red Sox didn’t replace David Ortiz’ production in the ways most of us expected. After a season of speculating about guys like Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista (as well as some likely impossible targets such as Paul Goldschmidt), Dave Dombrowski instead focused on run prevention. He added Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg to the pitching staff. His major offensive acquisition was Mitch Moreland, who will probably add more with the glove than the bat. While there was a workaround to the impossible task of replacing Ortiz’ bat, there’s no workaround to replace his leadership. Someone, or someones, will need to step up. Dustin Pedroia is the most likely candidate, as he’s been with the team for a long time and has shown leadership qualities throughout his career.

The flip side of his natural fit to a leadership role is that it signals he’s getting old. We know so much about how he fits in the clubhouse because we’ve been watching him for years. As nice as it’ll be to have a somewhat seamless transition in the clubhouse, what’s most important for Pedroia this year is continuing his performance on the field. The good news is he’s been remarkably consistent over his career. Outside of a brief downturn in 2014, he’s been around a four-win player for essentially his entire career. This year will be the second baseman’s age-33 season, however, and eventually we have to wonder when we’re going to start seeing the beginning of the end.

It’s safe to say that he showed no signs of decline last year, as he put together his best overall season since 2011. Not only was he fantastic at the plate, which we’ll get to in a moment, but he was phenomenal defensively. After taking a step back with the glove in 2015, both by the metrics and the eye test, Pedroia flourished by both measures in 2016. He was 12 runs above average by both UZR and Defensive Runs Saved, and he was a Gold Glove finalist.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

He was no slouch with the bat, either. He did everything he’s done in a typical Pedroia season, making a ton of contact, walking plenty and hitting for decent power for someone of his stature. All together, he slashed .318/.376/.449, good for a 120 wRC+. While, like I said, it was basically a typical Pedroia season, it was actually his best season with the bat since 2011.

Whether or not he’s going to start his late-career decline in 2017 sort of comes down to what you mean by decline. If you mean that he’s simply going to be worse than the year before, then yes he’ll probably decline this year. Everything went right for Pedroia in 2016, and to expect him to repeat that exactly or even get better is probably silly. That’s not really what I mean, though. What I’m worried about, given his age and the position he plays, is whether or not we’re going to see him decline by a significant margin.

Looking at what he did last season, there really aren’t many signs that he’s going to slow down anytime soon. He didn’t lose any of his ability to make contact, remaining elite in terms of both strikeout rate and swinging strike rate. He could take a slight step back in that area in 2017, but again I wouldn’t expect anything major.

The biggest area in which to look for regression is his batting average on balls in play. Pedroia posted a .339 BABIP in 2016, which was the highest of his career. That will probably come down, although not by as much as one may expect. For one thing, his career BABIP is .315, which isn’t all that far off from his 2016 mark. Additionally, he backed it up in 2016 with a career-high in line drive rate and nearly a career-high in hard hit rate. His BABIP will likely come down, but I’d guess only by 10 to 15 points.

Most of the concern about a possible decline for Pedroia stems from the fact that he plays second base. It is a common narrative that those who play the keystone position are prone to early and sudden declines, mostly due to the roughness of the position around the bag. To test this, I wanted to look at some of the best second baseman of the last 15-20 years and see when they stopped being themselves at the plate.

There are a few that met their demise when they were around Pedroia’s current age. Roberto Alomar, for example, fell off in his age-34 season, as did Howie Kendrick. It’s worth noting for Kenrick, though, that this was last season and a rebound is certainly possible. Brandon Phillips has always been a bit overrated, but he took a step back around age-32. On the other hand, Jeff Kent never really saw a decline at the plate. While he may not be a good comp for Pedroia given the vast difference in their defensive abilities, Chase Utley didn’t really start his decline until age-36. There’s also Robinson Cano, Pedroia’s long-time rival at the position, who just posted a phenomenal age-33 season.

The truth is, the narrative about the decline of second baseman is likely overblown. It’s still a bit worrisome for Pedroia, because he’s starting to enter the age where you’d worry about decline from any player. It’s particularly scary for someone like him who has an injury history and plays hard. However, with the DH spot in the lineup no longer taken up on an everyday basis, we can expect to see Pedroia to get some more time off the field while keeping his bat in the lineup.

At some point, Pedroia is going to decline. The Red Sox got extremely lucky with Ortiz, who was insanely productive until the day he retired. Most players aren’t like that. The good news is there are no signs that Pedroia will slow down this year. He’s coming off a phenomenal season, and plenty of second baseman have stayed productive into their mid-30’s. He’s going to be an important piece of the clubhouse, and he’ll be even more important on the field.