Appreciating The Keystone

June 7, 2004.

You may not recognize the date as having great significance in Red Sox history, but it does. It had nothing to do with what happened on the field that day, as the Red Sox were off, traveling between Kansas City and Boston ahead of a three-game series with the San Diego Padres. Instead it was a phone call placed by the Red Sox, specifically by GM Theo Epstein and Scouting Director David Chadd, that had lasting importance. Specifically, it was a call to alert the rest of Major League Baseball that with their first pick in the 2004 draft, the Boston Red Sox were selecting a shortstop from Arizona State University named Dustin Pedroia.

There was a buzz about Pedroia from the moment he was drafted. It’s possibly because Pedroia was the Red Sox’s first pick, and the first Red Sox pick is always of some consequence, at least initially. But it bears noting that Pedroia wasn’t a first round draft pick. The Red Sox had lost their first rounder when they signed free agent Keith Foulke from Oakland. Pedroia was the 65th player chosen in that draft, but despite that, he has turned into one of the best.

It’s a miracle Pedroia was even available in the middle of the second round. There were 64 players picked ahead of him, which means there were 64 chances for other teams to pick him. The White Sox, amazingly, had five selections before the Red Sox took Pedroia 65th overall. They took not Dustin Pedroia, not Dustin Pedroia, not Dustin Pedroia, not Dustin Pedroia, and not Dustin Pedroia, all of which were wrong.

Sort the entire ’04 draft by Baseball-Reference WAR and the first listed is Justin Verlander (56.6). Second in the entire draft is Pedroia at 52.2. That’s really close! It should be noted that the difference between the two players is larger by FanGraphs WAR (Verlander by 8.5) and much larger by our WARP (30.2), but even so, the Red Sox got the second-best player in the draft and likely the best position player available with a pick that is usually early in the third round.

Mostly all the above is abstract. Pedroia hasn’t been abstract. He’s been concrete, a foundational element in the Red Sox lineup since conquering the minor leagues for good in 2006. In 2007, Pedroia was installed by manager Terry Francona as the team’s regular second baseman coming out of spring training. Pedroia rewarded that faith by hitting .182/.308/.236. Famously, Francona refused to remove him from his starting spot. On May 3rd, Pedroia had a hit and a walk against Seattle. On May 5th, Pedroia had two hits and a walk against the Twins. May 6th? He had three hits, including two doubles against Minnesota. Two more hits followed on May 8th, and two more followed that on May 9. From that day forward, Pedroia has been the Red Sox’s second baseman.

He went on to win the American League Rookie of the Year award that season and, more importantly, help the Red Sox to their second World Series title in four seasons by hitting .283/.348/.483 throughout the playoffs. Pedroia collected three hits including a homer and five RBIs in the Red Sox win in Game Seven of the ALCS against Cleveland, and then in the first game of the World Series, on the second pitch he saw, he homered again. The Red Sox never trailed during that entire World Series. The next season, Pedroia won the American League MVP award and made the All-Star team. Since then, he’s made three more All-Star teams, finished in the top ten for the MVP twice, and has won numerous Gold Gloves which, contrary to most Gold Glove wins, were deserved.

It’s difficult to come up with great individual plays that define Pedroia’s career. There have been perhaps too many to count. There was the time Pedroia backed up a throw that got by first base and threw out the runner as he returned to first base. There were the billion times the ball should’ve rolled into right field only to be stopped by a diving Pedroia’s glove and turned into an out by a throw from the knees. There was the time Pedroia hurt his foot and took fielding practice from his knees. Mostly though there was that swing, that huge, massive, outsized gash of a swing from a guy who was smaller than you. But it was that swing that punched balls to right field in important spots, that lined balls into the gap that turned into doubles as Pedroia threw himself into second base as much with his arms as his legs. There isn’t anyone’s stance or throwing style or swing that stands out in my mind as much as Dustin Pedroia’s.

At 34, with all his accomplishments to date, it’s appropriate to wonder about his Hall of Fame chances. He’ll be in the Red Sox Hall of Fame for certain, but to date, he’s slightly short of the requirements of the one in Cooperstown. By Jay Jaffe’s excellent JAWS metric, Pedroia is short of the total of the average Hall of Fame second baseman by a bit. If he’s able to have a productive sunset to his career he’ll hit those marks, but we’re already seeing the injuries creep in.

Which brings me to this. It may have dawned on you that you are reading a Dustin Pedroia retrospective piece, and you are right. Why, you may ask, am I reading a Dustin Pedroia retrospective piece when the man will only be 34 next season and is signed through 2021? The reason is this: Pedroia underwent knee surgery this week, and it was a particularly serious form of surgery. 34 years old may not be old for you or me, but for a second baseman it’s pretty ancient, and second basemen – and really baseball players in general – need both knees to function well in order to be good at their jobs. What’s more is that this is Pedroia’s second surgery on this particular knee. Perhaps this one will do the trick and the man will be pain-free and return to his peak prime years, but given his age and medical history, that seems unlikely. Odds are this is the beginning of the end of Dustin Pedroia as the Red Sox’s second baseman.

This isn’t the end of Pedroia on the Red Sox, so those articles can be saved for later, fortunately. But this surgery, and the fact that it will assuredly keep Pedroia out through May of next season, is a wakeup call for those of us who have grown accustomed to Pedroia’s presence in the lineup. It won’t be forever. It wasn’t for David Ortiz, and it won’t be for Pedroia. However in this case, in contrast to Ortiz, Pedroia has spent his entire career in Boston with the Red Sox. He’s a two-time World Series champion, an MVP, a multiple-time Gold Glove winner and All-Star. Pedroia is, as much as any player can be, Mr. Red Sox, and our time with him is winding down. That’s the way these things work, of course, but rather than remember Pedroia after he’s gone, let’s appreciate him while he’s still here.

Photo by Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

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1 comment on “Appreciating The Keystone”

Horace Fury

And yet it would be useful to know what kind of knee injury Nunez has: is it something that heals and is done, or becomes a year-in, year-out stumbling block to a full season? Because Nunez at 3/36 or 39 sounds like a good idea to me given the way 2018 will begin. There is so much about Pedroia to like historically and to dislike now: the delusion of leadership, the bad baserunning that cannot be reined in by self-knowledge, the permanent loss of power, the combativeness at the plate when he’s wrong, the formerly laudable grit that now just ensures time on the DL, etc.

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