There is no denying that Dustin Pedoria is one of, if not arguably the best second baseman in baseball. (Really, he’s probably second.)
Manning the keystone for the Boston Red Sox, Pedroia’s 2013 finished an excellent three-year stretch where he was among the position’s statistical leaders across the board. Prior to that, Pedroia was excellent in an injury-shortened 2010 and had been among the position’s best from 2007 to 2009.
In fact, if we use Pedroia’s shortened 2010 as a dividing line, The Laser Show’s performance is a nice way to illustrate the changes to the second base position league-wide.
Using three-year chunks, Pedroia’s numbers from 07-09 were similar to his numbers from 11-13, but his ranks fluctuated some.
None of the changes are extreme really, but notice how his runs total dropped off yet his rank stayed the same and his RBI rank jumped from a not-so-large increase in production. Additionally, his stolen base rank only moved one spot despite a 34 percent increase.
Basically, Pedroia’s been the same guy for seven years but his value has moved. In the first sample, his 119 wRC+ was good for 47.4 batting runs above average, while his 121 wRC+ in the second sample was worth 52.4. Pedroia has stayed the same but become slightly more above-average (if we include his excellent defense, his WAR jumped from 14.9 to 17.4 between samples).
To reiterate, here are some league-wide stats for the second base position in the two samples, and they show a drop-off in second base production:
Second basemen in general are hitting for lower averages and homering less, though base stealing has remained consistent.
(Note: it’s worth pointing out that the league-wide average has dropped from .268 to .253 during this time, so this is not unique to second base, though the league-wide wRC+ is obviously consistent.)
So while the position has gotten weaker, how has Pedroia managed to stay elite?
Well for one, with the exception of a temporary drop in walk rate in 2012, his discipline rarely wavers. Walking as much as you strikeout is a great trait to possess – it generally means a low strikeout total, which means more balls in play, which is of course good for the average (since a strikeout has a BABIP of zero).
Despite just a .314 career BABIP (thank you, speed and 20-plus percent line drive rates), Pedroia has managed a .302 average. He had a lower BABIP than all but two players ahead of him in average this year and, not coincidentally, he had a lower strikeout rate than all but one. You don’t have to have a BABIP like Mike Trout to post a solid average if every ball is going in play.
Here’s what’s interesting about Pedroia’s discipline, though: while he swings at a below-average amount of pitches (both in and out of the zone), it’s his ability to make contact with everything that keeps him alive in plate appearances. Pedroia’s 4.6 percent swinging strike rate was the 11th lowest mark in the league and his rate since 2007 (four percent) is the 20th lowest in that time. It’s no surprise, then, that Pedroia was top-30 in the league in pitches per plate appearance.
More importantly, Pedroia had the league’s best OBP and fourth-best OPS in counts with two strikes.
Basically, Pedroia is one of the league’s toughest outs and no plate appearance can ever be considered over. That really allows him to be selective when he’s ahead, because there’s little risk for him if he falls into a two-strike count.
In fantasy terms, all of this makes Pedroia a relatively safe average play, year after year. His runs and RBI are stable due to the offense he plays in, his position in that lineup (usually third) and his aforementioned ability to put balls in play and get on base. He’s only averaged 141 games per season in his career, but even at that total he’s going to be a major fantasy asset.
(His speed is something that isn’t showing signs of deteriorating much, either, though his 2013 total of 17 steals was his lowest on a per-plate appearance basis since his 2007 rookie season.)
The power is what may concern some.
He hit just nine homeruns this year, and that’s part of the reason he ranked just fifth in fantasy value for second basemen despite all these other glowing areas.
For the second year in a row, Pedroia saw his HR/FB rate drop in a major way (11.4 to 8.5 to 5.6 percent) and his infield fly rate increase (9.1 to 9.9 to 12.5 percent). This year, that was accompanied by a huge drop in fly ball rate (35 to 28 percent), severely limiting Pedroia’s chances to hit home runs.
At the time of writing, Baseball Heat Maps is down and I’m unable to pull fly ball and line drive distances for Pedroia. I’d suspect that they have seen a decline, but I can’t show that without the data. What we can see, though, is that Pedroia pulled the ball with less authority this year – his ISO on pulled balls dropped from .250 to .226, his fly ball rate fell from 21 percent to 16 percent, and his HR/FB rate dropped from 30.2 to 23.5 percent.
Has his bat speed slowed, perhaps? Per Brooks Baseball via Baseball Prospectus, Pedroia’s ISO against ‘hard’ pitches on the inside part of the plate dropped from .222 in 2012 to .145 in 2013.
That’s definitely concerning, but it seems like 2013 was a worst-case scenario in terms of power production. Don’t forget that Pedroia played through a UCL sprain and a thumb issue all year, and it doesn’t take a leap of faith to suggest that may have had an impact on his ability to get around on a ball with authority.
While it’s possible Pedroia’s power peaked at age-28, it seems unlikely he’s suddenly lost all semblance of pop in his bat. It’s not unrealistic to pencil in a dozen home runs for 2014. And you know the rest of the stats will be there, making Pedroia a no-brainer top-five second baseman once again.