Ho-hum. The storyline has been heard before.
In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising thing about it was simply the fact that there was surprise at the trajectory being taken by Dustin Pedroia’s season.
The second baseman ba nged out three hits on Saturday against the Blue Jays, his second straight contest with three knocks. Unlike Friday night, however, Pedroia was impacting the ball, lining a pair of doubles to the opposite field on Saturday to help serve as a catalyst in the Sox’ 16-4 shellacking of the Blue Jays. (Recap.)
The consecutive three-hit games, of course, come on the heels of a favorable medical exam on Thursday, when Pedroia learned that his knee injury was a bruise, and hence something that he could play through and that wouldn’t require surgery.
It is becoming a familiar refrain. Pedroia has suffered through a lengthy early-season slump in each of his five full big-league seasons now, ranging anywhere from 20-plus games to 50 contests. Often, those have coincided with some sort of injury. Yet even when his slump encompasses nearly one-third of a baseball season, he has made an annual point of pulling out his skid, typically in mid-June, with a hail of hits that has contributed to his stature as one of the top second basemen in the game.
It is a pattern that has been repeated in every one of his campaigns in the majors. It has reached the point where it can no longer be considered alarming to watch the second baseman endure weeks-long fallow stretches, given the precedent for what lies on the other side of such stretches.
It is, of course, premature to declare that Pedroia is now out of his slump, and that after just two productive games, he has started a roll that could carry him and the Sox through the end of the season. Yet it would also be silly to dismiss the possibility given that this has now become an annual rite of summer for the 27-year-old.
A year-by-year look:
Pedroia had done little to suggest that he deserved the everyday job as Red Sox second baseman. In a late-season cameo in 2006, he hit .191 with a .561 OPS. Through 21 games in the following year, he was hitting .172 with a .518 OBP.
Beneath the surface, there were hints that his slump might not last. He had 10 walks and just six strikeouts in 68 plate appearances, and his BABIP was .192.
Still, no one (save, perhaps, for Pedroia himself) saw the force of nature that was to come. He hit .335 with an .861 OPS, 45 extra-base hits, 37 walks and just 36 strikeouts over the rest of the season, finishing the year with a .317 average and .823 OPS before serving as an impact player in the postseason – despite playing through a broken hamate that would require offseason surgery.
The Laser Show had been born.
Pedroia got off to a torrid start, hitting .364 with a .941 OPS through April 22. However, he became a non-factor over the next six weeks, hitting .212 with a .551 OPS during a 46-game span from April 23 to June 13, walking nine times and punching out on 18 occasions.
His average for the year had dropped to .260 with a .311 OBP and .676 OPS, and the notion of a sophomore slump was in play. The downturn coincided almost exactly with an injured thumb that had made the second baseman a shell of himself.
As he drifted through that stretch, it was hard to imagine what resided on the other side of the slump – chiefly, a three-and-a-half month finishing kick in which Pedroia hit .375 with a .422 OBP, .588 slugging mark, 1.010 OPS, 13 homers, 52 extra-base hits, 32 walks and just 24 strikeouts over his final 89 games of the season. The performance garnered him the American League MVP award. âÂ¨
The pothole wasn’t quite as deep, but it was there. Coming off his MVP campaign, opponents were approaching Pedroia differently, trying to work away in the strike zone in order to prevent him from lashing liners all over the place.
That didn’t stop Pedroia from getting off to a tremendous start. He his .341 with a .429 OBP and .872 OPS through May 26. However, around Memorial Day, he entered the fall. Over his next 33 games (just over one-fifth of the season), Pedroia hit .214 with a .279 OBP, .293 slugging percentage and .572 OPS.
Over the final three months of the season, Pedroia was once again a force in the top of the lineup, hitting .306 with a .378 OBP, .519 slugging mark, .897 OPS and 13 homers in the last 77 games of the year. He walked almost twice as many times (36) as he struck out (21).
To date, the 2011 season has been almost a carbon copy of its predecessor. (Editor’s note: The carbon copy is now a total anachronism.)
Through April 15 last season, Pedroia was killing the ball, hitting .405 with a 1.253 OPS through the season’s first stretch of games. Then came his annual brush with mediocrity, an eight-week, 50-game rut in which he hit .220 with a .309 OBP, .356 slugging percentage and .665 OPS.
The struggle became more pronounced around mid-May, when Pedroia suffered a knee injury while sliding into home. His numbers over the next few weeks were truly awful while he dealt with significant pain: A .178/.279/.244/.523 line that included just six extra-base hits (all doubles) in 104 plate appearances.
There was concern that the knee issue might be a significant one. Pedroia required an MRI. The results were positive, with an indication that the second baseman would need to manage the pain, but that he wasn’t at risk of a more significant structural injury. That outcome offered a measure of reassurance that seemed to buoy the second baseman’s spirits as he commenced one of the greatest runs of his career.
Over his next 13 games, Pedroia had nine multiple-hit contests, including his epic 5-for-5, three-homer performance against the Rockies. Over two weeks, he hit .491 with a .548 OBP, .849 slugging mark and 1.397 OPS with four homers and 10 extra-base hits.
The run came to a crashing halt when he broke his left foot on a foul ball. Still, it had been enough to get Pedroia’s stats for the year in line with his career norms, as he ended up hitting .282/.367/.493/.860.
As he did last year, Pedroia started well, with three straight three-hit games in the second week of the year to lift his average to .400 with a 1.019 OPS.
The hot start didn’t last. Pedroia, over his next 50 games (the same duration as his 2010 slump), hit .219 with a .347 OBP, .296 slugging mark and .643 OPS.
The .347 OBP was notable, since it suggested that Pedroia was remaining productive as a table-setter despite his struggles with the bat. And somehow, even though he was striking out as never before (33 times during the 50-game stretch), he was still taking more walks than whiffs, claiming 37 free passes.
Nevertheless, for the second straight year, Pedroia was dealing not just with poor production but also pain. His right knee had been aching since a run-in with Brian Roberts in late-April that the Sox elected to send him for an MRI last week, and then for a procedure in which a microscopic camera was inserted into his knee to get a better view of the troublesome area.
The conclusion that Pedroia was dealing with a bone bruise – rather than a structural issue that might require surgery – was greeted with a significant measure of relief by the second baseman, who said on Friday that he “lucked out” with the diagnosis.
Pedroia collected three hits and reached base four times in that first game back on Friday, and then went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and three runs batted in on Saturday. His average is back up to .263 and, perhaps even more notably, his on-base percentage is at a robust .375, a mark that is better than teammate Jacoby Ellsbury (.373) and that ranks fourth on the team, behind only the three middle-of-the-order bashers – Adrian Gonzalez (.391), Kevin Youkilis (.380) and David Ortiz (.396) – who hit behind him.
If history is a guide, these past two games are not merely a blip, but instead the start of Pedroia’s annual downshift into a race through the remainder of his season.