As great as he is, signing Dustin Pedroia long-term is risky business for Red Sox


3__1281010055_4438.jpg

I’ve often said that Cam Neely is the most universally popular athlete among Boston fans of my sports lifetime.*

(* — I remember Bobby Orr only as a Blackhawk, and that’s my loss, I know. I wish I’d paid attention to the Bruins more when I was three.)

Tom Brady engenders perfect-life envy and won’t be fully appreciated until he has long since moved to that little seaside shanty with a moat in California. Larry Bird had the scattered “he’s overrated because he’s pasty and practically opaque” detractors. Local sports radio wind machines liked to refer to Pedro Martinez as a punk, which says more about them than him.

Advertisement

But everyone loved No. 8 in the black and gold.

I’m beginning to think Dustin Pedroia will match Neely’s beloved status, and that’s assuming he hasn’t already. He certainly deserves it.

He’s in his seventh exceptional season for the Red Sox, and is currently batting third for one of the most productive, redemptive and likable clubs we’ve watched in some time. Things tend to go to hell when he’s not around. He plays the game the way you’d like to believe you would if blessed with such talent, determination, and opportunity. He truly loves and appreciates what he does, something Peter Abraham illustrated beautifully in this recent story.

I probably don’t need to tell you all that; there’s a decent shot you or your kid already has the requisite Sox t-shirt with No. 15 on the back. It’s just that I feel obligated to acknowledge how much he is appreciated – and that he deserves all of it – because I suspect my opinion here is an unpopular one:

Taking sentimentality out of the equation, I don’t quite get why the Red Sox are so intent on locking him up long-term right now.

Advertisement

And if the five-year, $100-million deal that they are reportedly discussing is tacked on to the end of his current contract (he has essentially two years and $21 million remaining after this season), then I’m very skeptical. What’s the rush?

[Update: WEEI’s Rob Bradford is reporting Pedroia and the Sox have agreed in principle on a seven-year deal through 2021 for roughly $100 million. So there you go. The current option for ’15 is apparently the first year of the new deal. It’s happening.]

walkertoddcard.jpg

I love everything Pedroia has done here, everything he is, but I’m wary of what he might become. The reason some consider it a no-brainer to pay him – he plays hard, always – is also a reason to wonder what he’ll be at the middle of the contract, let alone at the end of it. Besides, if scrappiness and popularity were a reason to pay a player, Darren Bragg would still be in right field.

OK, that last line is snark for snark’s sake. Pedroia plays hard, and very, very well. Still, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder whether his career trajectory will be somewhat similar to Kevin Youkilis‘s, if perhaps not quite as drastic a downturn. Both had an exceptional peak. Both played very hard every day. And both suffered injuries both serious and bizarre.

Pedroia is playing through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb that he tore sliding into first base on Opening Day. If it’s affected him, it’s noticeable in a slight dip in his home run power, a career-low slugging percentage (.422), and a subpar July so far (.641 OPS). But the toll of the injuries almost always becomes noticeable later. And later sometimes comes around sooner than you’d ever think.

Advertisement

He’s not going to change his style, nor would we ever ask him to. But in his desire to play, he’s done things that are counterproductive to his recovery, such as taking grounders while recovering from a broken foot in 2010. It was a great visual, watching him out there with crutches. It also set him back. Sometimes he is his own worst enemy.

Pedroia turns 30 in less than a month. That means that if this five-year deal is tacked on to the remaining two years, he’ll be 37 when the contract plays out. That is well past the expiration date for most second basemen, a grueling position in which prolonged success into a player’s mid-30s is rare.

Here’s a little experiment I tried on baseball-reference. I took Todd Walker‘s 2003 season – 13 homers, a 95 OPS+, and a .760 OPS, a decent recent pre-Pedroia season by a Red Sox second baseman and one that would far and away be the worst of Pedroia’s career – and punched it into b-ref’s Play Index.

Then I searched for second basemen who matched or surpassed Walker’s ’03 numbers at ages 35 and 36. Here’s what it gave me for age 35:

Player HR OPS OPS+ Year G PA AB R H 2B RBI BB SO SB BA OBP SLG
Frank White 22 .787 111 1986 151 620 566 76 154 37 84 43 88 4 .272 .322 .465
Craig Biggio 20 .838 111 2001 155 717 617 118 180 35 70 66 100 7 .292 .382 .455
Charlie Gehringer 20 .911 121 1938 152 688 568 133 174 32 107 113 21 14 .306 .425 .486
Eddie Stanky 14 .770 108 1951 145 654 515 88 127 17 43 127 63 8 .247 .401 .369
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/22/2013.

… and an even shorter list for 36.

Player HR OPS OPS+ Year G PA AB R H 2B RBI BB SO SB BA OBP SLG
Jeff Kent 27 .880 123 2004 145 606 540 96 156 34 107 49 96 7 .289 .348 .531
Ryne Sandberg 25 .760 97 1996 150 621 554 85 135 28 92 54 116 12 .244 .316 .444
Randy Velarde 16 .845 118 1999 156 711 631 105 200 25 76 70 98 24 .317 .390 .455
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/22/2013.

And there was one age 37 season by a second baseman equal to or surpassing Walker’s just-OK ’03 season: Jeff Kent, in 2005.


Pedroia’s list of comps doesn’t offer much more peace of mind. His most similar player from ages 26-28 is Jose Vidro. The peak of the unsung Vidro’s career looks remarkably similar to Pedroia’s:

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1997 22 MON 67 185 169 19 42 12 2 17 1 11 20 .249 .297 .367 .664 74
1998 23 MON 83 245 205 24 45 12 0 18 2 27 33 .220 .318 .278 .596 61
1999 24 MON 140 531 494 67 150 45 12 59 0 29 51 .304 .346 .476 .822 108
2000 25 MON 153 663 606 101 200 51 24 97 5 49 69 .330 .379 .540 .918 126
2001 26 MON 124 531 486 82 155 34 15 59 4 31 49 .319 .371 .486 .856 119
2002 27 MON 152 681 604 103 190 43 19 96 2 60 70 .315 .378 .490 .868 124
2003 28 MON 144 592 509 77 158 36 15 65 3 69 50 .310 .397 .470 .866 121
2004 29 MON 110 467 412 51 121 24 14 60 3 49 43 .294 .367 .454 .821 108
2005 30 WSN 87 347 309 38 85 21 7 32 0 31 30 .275 .339 .424 .763 104
2006 31 WSN 126 511 463 52 134 26 7 47 1 41 48 .289 .348 .395 .744 96
2007 32 SEA 147 625 548 78 172 26 6 59 0 63 57 .314 .381 .394 .775 109
2008 33 SEA 85 330 308 28 72 11 7 45 2 18 36 .234 .274 .338 .612 65
12 Yrs 1418 5708 5113 720 1524 341 128 654 23 478 556 .298 .359 .445 .804 108
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/23/2013.

Thumbnail image for vidrojosefinn722.JPG

And his fade was painfully fast. Some of that decline was due to injuries, and Vidro wasn’t the mostly finely conditioned athlete of the 21st century. But again, it’s at least a small reminder: second base, to paraphrase semi-fictional Ron Washington from “Moneyball,” is incredibly hard.
If you’re skeptical, imagine yourself waiting for a throw from the third baseman while just out of your line of vision, Yasiel Puig is barreling toward your left knee with the ferocious intent of breaking up a double play no matter what it takes. Me, I’d go fetal roughly 20 feet behind the bag. Make it straightaway center field just to be safe.
Second base is a tough position to endure even if you play with self-preservation in mind. Dustin Pedroia has never played with self-preservation in mind. It’s one reason why Boston loves him like it loved Neely, a player who was robbed of the years beyond his prime and thus never faded in our eyes.
If a player is going to make $20 million per year, sure, it might as well be Pedroia, if you want to look at it in a vacuum, with no consideration to how it might affect team-building, the salary structure, and so on. But if this contract is a five-year extension rather than one that starts anew next year — and it is apparently the former, with an average annual value of roughly $15 million — here’s a suggestion to tuck away for future reference:
Make a note to remember how fun he was to watch when he signed this deal. Because as adept as he has been at proving doubters wrong, chances are that in 2019 and beyond, Pedroia, will bear only a faint resemblance to the player he is now.

Loading Comments...