A recent very good article by Paul Swydan in the Boston Globe illustrating the precipitous decline in Dustin Pedroia’s baserunning numbers got me thinking about both how great Pedey has been to this point in his career and what a productive final act for the legend might look like, and whether it’s even necessary for him to be great for the Red Sox to compete for a World Series title.
To be clear, he’ll always likely be decent, and the end is still a way off. He’s signed through 2021, and his on-base skills and defensive skills give him a relatively high advanced statistical floor for the Red Sox even when the power disappears, as it has this year, and the baserunning is in the tank, to which it might have gone for good. FanGraphs has him at 0.6 fWAR for the season to this point, which isn’t great, but is in line with players including perpetual MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera and ahead of young stars like Andrew Benintendi. Scuffling for two months isn’t a death sentence.
Still, you’d have to think modest statistical production like this year’s would be warmly accepted by fans and ownership alike from here on out, given Pedey’s iconic place in Red Sox history, his relatively team-friendly contract and the fact that they’ll probably have to drag him out of Fenway’s batting cage on the day of his retirement ceremony. If there’s one thing I know about Pedroia, and have known for a while, it’s that his commitment to Red Sox baseball is total.
Take the unforgettable opening anecdote of Tom Verducci’s classic 2011 Pedey profile in Sports Illustrated, “THE MUDDY CHICKEN HITS IT BIG” — the capital letters are their emphasis, not mine — if you need proof:
KELLI AND Dustin Pedroia and their cheeky two-year-old son, Dylan, live across the street from Fenway Park, and one reason why is clear from the view out their 13th-floor windows. Fenway in the quiet morn, before the sausages sizzle and the pilgrims parade in wearing the liturgical garments of Red Sox Nation, sits below them like an unopened Tiffany box, all neat, pristine corners and possibilities. The Pedroias can see the centerfield scoreboard and, through a crack in the asymmetrical grandstand, first base. They also can spy a large chain-link gate on wheels, which sometime in the middle of the day will be rolled open to Red Sox personnel for the symbolic start of the baseball business day.
Kelli will catch her little guy pulling the drapes aside and checking the status of the gate. Is it open? How about now? Now? "It's ridiculous," she says. "He paces until it's open. He's not calm until he's at the ballpark."
And at last when his surveillance is rewarded—the gates swinging open six, seven hours before the game is scheduled to begin—the little guy is happy, for he knows it is finally time to go out and play. He is out the door and across the street in no time.
Dustin Pedroia even takes Dylan with him sometimes.
This attitude has served him well throughout his career, but now that he’s slowing down it could backfire, if slightly. He has generally played through the injuries until there are no more games to play, and his glove has been good enough to make it work, but you might want to mentally prepare for the status quo to change, slightly.
To show why it could change, let’s go back to 2014, when Pedroia’s year ended in early September for thumb and wrist surgery. His season slash was .278/.337/.376 over 609 PAs, for a 98 wRC+, again per the ‘Graphs. This year, Pedey is hitting .292/.369/.380 in a third as many appearances, for a 102 wRC+. These are the only two seasons in his career even close to 100 (which is average), and they are remarkably similar.
They are also not, in and of themselves, causes for alarm. An average bat-at-worst is not a problem when you’re a marvel in the field, and Pedey was most certainly that in 2014, putting up a near career high 20.3 defensive runs saved. Take one run away for very slightly below average base running -- totally fine, especially for a smaller guy traveling fixed distances -- and he managed to put up 4.1 fWAR.
That’s a damn good down year. In fact, in Pedroia’s subsequent up year in 2016, he went .312./376/.449 at the plate and saved 14.9 defensive runs and only pushed his full-season output to a (stellar) 5.2 fWAR. What gives? I mean you know, because I’ve told you, several times over. It’s the baserunning.
It was bad enough last year, when he was worth -4.5 runs on the basepaths, by far the worst mark of his career and in the bottom 25 overall in the majors, ranked between Salvador Perez and Adrian Gonzalez, a representative baseball-demographic sample of the bottom dwellers. To give more context, Victor Martinez was worst overall at -11.5, with Miggy C. and David Ortiz just behind him, but Pedey was still a standard deviation away from them. He was bad, but not so, so bad.
This year, however, he has bottomed out. Pedroia has already passed last year’s mark, having cost the Sox 4.6 runs on the basepaths in less than two months. He comfortably “leads” the league, and the only question is whether or not he’ll still be “atop” the leaderboard when he returns to every day, with “second-place” Yasiel Puig in simultaneously hot and bumbling pursuit, so to speak.
You don’t have to be a statistical fiend to know these numbers are bad, nor do you have to be a doctor to surmise they may be injury-related, and not simply due to old age. All of which is to say it’s possible that Pedey gets healthy, stops the bleeding at around last year’s still-bad level and continues to otherwise be great. The good news is that fielding numbers are, if a little down, still quite good, with 3.1 runs saved so far.
Given any time to really heal, it’s easy to see him provide considerable value at the plate and in the field, because it’s all he’s ever done at full-strength. I have two questions about this, though. The first question is how the Red Sox get him there. Specifically, it’s how the team and Pedroia balance his long-term needs with the tag-team of the short-term needs of the club and Pedey’s delightfully pathological need to play in the big league ballgames.
The second question is when we start asking the first question. (If you’re wondering how this is even possible, which it sort of isn’t, please consult this clip.) I wish we had time, and Pedroia had the inclination, to let himself heal, because his ceiling is fully within reach when the bat has power, and the bat only has power when he’s healthy these days, and there are only so many days left. I want them to be good ones. He’s good either way and his defense keeps him relevant, but it no longer allows him to thrive on its own, not with the runs he gives back with his cleats. As a result, his overall positive value is, for the first time, near-entirely dependent on his pop.
If it doesn’t return this year, it’s still not Pedroia’s fault that the Sox are merely-good-but-still sorta-meh, not with the savior Andrew Benintendi clocking in at 0.5 WAR and David Price only recently becoming “relevant.” A waffly Pedey is still good for Boston, and even if he puts up negative WAR for the rest of his life, he’s been worth every penny to the Sox and their fans. He won’t, though. He can’t outrun father time -- or much else these days -- but he doesn’t have to. He just needs to fire up the laser show. If he does that, the twilight of his career might provide more than just an opportunity to appreciate an aging star’s body of work. It could awe.