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One Big Question: Can Dustin Pedroia put off his decline for another year?

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There’s still time, right?

MLB: ALDS-Boston Red Sox Workouts Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Dustin Pedroia.

The Question: Is Dustin Pedroia in the thick of his decline phase or was 2017 the exception?

When David Ortiz retired, many of us (or at least me. I won’t speak for anyone else) were looking for the next veteran to latch onto in search for meaning and stability in this cruel and random universe. This isn’t the same of looking for a replacement in terms of production, of course, but the veteran face of the franchise for lack of a better term. Anyway, the obvious answer was Dustin Pedroia, who hasn’t really been here forever but let’s be honest he’s pretty much been here forever. Even better, with the exception of a couple of blips on the radar here and there, the Red Sox second baseman was still playing at an extremely high level and was coming off a really impressive 2016 season. There was reason to be excited about a team being led, at least emotionally, by Pedroia. The Red Sox obviously did just fine last year, but the second baseman didn’t really play a major role as his year was marred by injury and lackluster performance when he was on the field. As he enters his age-34 season, it’s fair to wonder yet again if this is the beginning of the end for Pedroia or if it was merely just another one of those blips on the radar.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers were certainly concerning for the former Rookie of the Year and MVP in 2017, and we’ll spend plenty of time on those, but really the crux of the concern with the veteran revolves around his injury. Pedroia hit the disabled list three times last season, once for a wrist injury and twice for knee soreness. It’s that knee injury that is most concerning, as Dave Dombrowski mentioned last summer that this is something that will have to be monitored for the remainder of Pedroia’s career. He underwent surgery on the ailing knee at the start of the offseason and is going to miss at least the first month or so of the season. Anyone over a certain age knows that knees don’t really get better as you get older, so the fact that this is already a built-in concern for a player who plays as consistently hard-nosed as Pedroia is something to worry about.

I think it’s fair to assume these injuries had some effect on Pedroia’s numbers, but he’s also at an age where one would expect some decline in offensive production. The fall from 2016 to 2017 was more than just expected, gradual decline for someone of his age. In 2016, he hit an impressive .318/.376/.449 for a 122 wRC+. That was his best wRC+ since 2011, but it was also only five points higher than his 2015 mark, so it wasn’t entirely eye-opening. Then, in 2017, he hit just .293/.369/.362 for an essentially average 102 wRC+. With his defense, Pedroia can still be a valuable performance even with this lackluster performance at the plate, but let’s take a deeper look at his 2017 and see if improvement is on the horizon or if this is just who he is now.

The good news is that Pedroia still showed off his typically great plate discipline in 2017, which can be seen in his batting average and on-base percentage. He continued his run of never striking out in more than 12.3 percent of his plate appearances — this is bananas in today’s game, by the way — and also got his walk rate up into the double digits for the first time since 2013. There’s been a lot of talk about changing approaches up and down the Red Sox lineup, but Pedroia has things down at this point in his career. He’s consistently among the best in terms of drawing walks and making consistent contact, and there’s little reason to expect a change on that front moving forward.

Where things took a downward turn for Pedroia was what happened when he made contact. Though the second baseman has rarely been a huge power threat in his career, particularly over the last five years or so, when he’s at his best he’s always a threat to put a charge into the ball. In 2015 and 2016 he posted Isolated Powers of .150 and .131, respectively, to go with batting averages on balls in play of .308 and .339. The BABIP found a happy medium in 2017 as he finished with a .315 mark, but the power fell off in a big way with a .099 mark that is especially jarring considering the power explosion around the league in the last year and a half or so. The good news is that Pedroia’s batted ball profile didn’t change all that much and this was the result of a low home-run-to-flyball ratio. Oftentimes, that can be an indicator of bad luck. However, Pedroia also didn’t hit the ball hard as often last year, according to Fangraphs’ hard hit rate. The hope would be that injuries played a role in this and that this isn’t an indicator of what to expect moving forward.

With Pedroia entering his age-34 season, any reasonable person would acknowledge that we can expect some sort of decline from here on out from the second baseman. That doesn’t mean he can’t improve upon his 2017 season, though, or that he can’t provide value. To the latter point, his defensive skills are a huge plus, particularly for a team that could use some help with their infield defense. That’s true even if one believes his knee injury could slow him down a bit with the glove. As far as improving the offense, it will be important to watch just how consistently he can make solid contact when he first comes back from his injury. We’ve seen him bounce back from power outages before, but eventually it just won’t come back. He’ll be an above-average regular even without the power, but if he can show he can still make consistently hard contact upon his return, we may still have another couple years of Pedroia being a borderline All-Star caliber player.