By now, I think most of us are aware about how weird and streaky this Red Sox team can be. It’s just not what we’re used to seeing from this organization, particularly for those of us who have only been watching for the last 15-20 years. It’s not your childhood Red Sox squad, to be sure. It’s a team built around pitching, and while other iterations have had strong pitching staffs, there’s always been a strong offense to back things up. This year, of course, the offense is different, and markedly worse. There are a lot of issues here, but the most noticeable difference is that there isn’t a star on which they can lean through bad stretches. Instead, there are different players who need to step up at different times before passing the baton onto the next player. There isn’t one crucial piece in this lineup. That being said, the more I watch the unit and the more I look at how all of the pieces fit together, the more important I believe Dustin Pedroia is and will be moving forward.
The obviously retort to this claim will clearly be that the team was able to go on a big run through much of August without the second baseman. Such a run made it clear to some people that the Red Sox don’t actually need Pedroia. In fact, some people believe they are better without the veteran infielder. That is, of course, crazy. A big part of the reason the Red Sox went on that run was otherworldly performances from Rafael Devers and Eduardo Nuñez, and while both of those players should and will contribute moving forward, that was likely the best they’ll play all year. The truth is that Pedroia has been very effective this year, and the Red Sox need him at his best if they are to be at their best.
It hasn’t quite seemed as if Pedroia has been as good as he has been, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised when I saw his numbers. In 411 plate appearances this year, the second baseman is hitting .304/.381/.409 for a 110 wRC+. It’s not vintage Pedroia by any means, and it’s actually one of his worst seasons of his career, but it’s still better than it feels like he’s been. Part of that is because he’s been so much better in the second half, with a 122 wRC+ compared to a 106 mark in the first half.
On the negative side, the thing that really stands out with Pedroia is his lack of power. This, of course, has been an issue with the entire Red Sox roster, and it’s also been a concern for Pedroia throughout his career. When he’s struggling offensively, he’s not hitting for power. On the year, his .106 ISO is worse than all but nine of the 182 players with at least 400 plate appearances this year. His batted ball data hasn’t taken a significant step back this year, so this is simply a matter of hitting the ball with less authority with some bad luck likely mixed in there. The good news is that some of that luck is reversing itself in the second half, as a higher flyball-to-home-run ratio has led to a solid (for him) .146 ISO.
The power isn’t what’s important to Pedroia’s game. The Red Sox surely need more thump in their lineup, but this isn’t the spot they should expect it from. Instead, he makes his money by getting on base, and he’s done a good job of that this year. The veteran is showing some of the best plate discipline of his career, and that has led to an impressive .381 on-base percentage as well as a walk rate higher than his strikeout rate. The Red Sox have been a patient team all year — sometimes to a fault — but Pedroia takes that approach to its best extreme. He’s swinging less often than ever, but that patience is coming on pitches out of the zone. On pitches in the zone, he’s swinging as often as he has in five years. This not only leads to his elite K/BB skills, but it also leads to line drives and good contact, which shows in his .301 batting average.
All of this leads me to believe the best Red Sox lineup has Pedroia at the top of it. He has seen some time there this year and over the course of his career, though there is some belief that he doesn’t really like it up there. To a certain point, I understand a manager giving in to his players’ wants, but Pedroia is just the perfect fit here. If you believe his mini power surge in the second half is unsustainable -- and I do believe that — then someone with his plate discipline and lack of power should be the first player batting in every game. This would then allow players with pop like Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts and Eduardo Nuñez to have more plate appearances with runners on base.
Of course, before Pedroia can become an everyday leadoff hitter, he needs to be an everyday player. Health concerns are putting him on the bench a lot lately, and this is where John Farrell gets his points. The Red Sox are still in the thick of a playoff race, but right now they are in an outstanding position to take the division. Boston knows that, and while they are certainly not coasting they have an eye on October. Part of that is keeping Pedroia fresh. He’s getting days off, and he’s getting removed from games where the outcome is known early. The Red Sox realize how important their second baseman is to their lineup, and if they are going to go deep into October they know they’ll need him getting on base atop their lineup to set up the rest of their offense. Pedroia alone can’t get this group going, but he’ll be a huge part of it if they do go on a run.