The Rushmore of Red Sox second baseman has two faces on it. So what does Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, now 94, think of Dustin Pedroia, who more than a half-century after Doerr’s retirement has emerged as a game-changing player at the position?
“I hope that I was that good,” Doerr said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. “He’s just quite a ballplayer. He does everything good, makes the double plays good, the fielding plays. And he’s also a good run producer.”
In short, Pedroia does everything. And while he does not yet have Doerr’s resume -- the Los Angeles native, dubbed the “silent captain” by Ted Williams when the two were teammates in the 1940s and '50s, was one of the great power-hitting, run-producing, double play-turning second basemen in big league history -- Pedroia is carving out a place at this early stage of his career as one of the top players in baseball history at his position.
During a season when the Red Sox have struggled deeply, Pedroia is off to a spectacular yet overlooked start. Usually a player who is slow out of the blocks and who does not hit his stride until May or June, the 28-year-old is doing his best to single-handedly lift his team from its funk.
On Monday, in the Red Sox’ 11-5 victory in Kansas City, it was more of the same. While rookie sensation Will Middlebrooks proved a headline-stealer with two homers and a double, Pedroia went 2-for-3 with a double, homer and three walks while also making the pivotal defensive play of the game.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Sox were clinging to an increasingly shaky 7-5 lead. Reliever Vicente Padilla got Royals slugger Billy Butler to chop a grounder to second. Pedroia fielded and transferred it so quickly that Mike Aviles could relay the ball to first in time to complete a 4-6-3 double play that allowed the Sox to avoid a meltdown.
Almost every night of this year, Pedroia has turned in an impact play in an attempt to elevate his team. On Sunday, for instance, in the top of the 16th inning, he made an unbelievable diving play on a looping fly ball down the right-field line, further reinforcing what manager Bobby Valentine said earlier in the season about the constancy of Pedroia’s amazing defensive work.
There have been other performances that have obscured what Pedroia has done. David Ortiz had an exceptional April. Middlebrooks is a revelation this month. But the second baseman has been the constant, the one player who has seemed hell-bent from the first day of the season on trying to lift the Sox from their morass.
His performance to date has been dominant. Pedroia is hitting .311 with a .383 OBP, .513 slugging mark, .896 OPS, four homers and 11 RBI. All percentages are above his career averages of .305/.374/.465/.839.
The performance is all the more remarkable given that he is typically a slow starter. Through last May 7, he was hitting just .237 with a .349 OBP and .317 slugging mark. This year has been different, as Pedroia has been -- quite literally -- in position to hit the ground running in a year in which he no longer features a screw in his foot.
“I feel great, man. I feel good. My legs are underneath me. My swing feels great,” Pedroia said earlier this year. “I missed a lot of time in 2010. I think I hit well in spring training [in 2011], but I didn’t feel right until the first couple months of the year. I feel good now. I feel healthy. I don’t have to worry about my foot anymore.”
How might that translate? It is early, and in all likelihood terribly premature, for such conversation, but given his fast start and the fact that he is now healthy and entering his prime years, it is possible that Pedroia could be on the cusp of a career year. He avoided the month-long slump that usually characterizes his year in April and/or May, and he is performing at a tremendous level.
In his last 16 games, he is now hitting .357 with a .439 OBP, .586 slugging mark and 1.024 OPS. But such hot streaks have now become standard stuff for Pedroia over the start of a career -- now in its sixth full season -- that is among the greatest ever at his position.
An offensive comparison of Pedroia to other second basemen through their age 28 seasons reveals a player who -- even without accounting statistically for his game-changing defense -- is asserting himself in the company of Doerr and other Hall of Famers.
Into his age 28 season, Pedroia’s .839 OPS is the sixth-best all-time by a second baseman (meaning a player who spent at least 75 percent of his time at the position) with at least 3,000 plate appearances by this age. Of the five players in front of him, four are Hall of Famers (Tony Lazzerri, .869; Eddie Collins, .865; Charlie Gehringer, .852; Joe Gordon, .846) and one is a contemporary (Robinson Cano, .843) who is likely vying with (and just as likely trailing) Pedroia for the title of the greatest second baseman of this generation.
In terms of OPS+ (a player’s OPS compared to the average of his era), Pedroia slips back a bit, but not much. His 118 OPS+ (meaning he has an OPS 18 percent better than the average big leaguer during his career) is in the top 10 of second basemen through age 28, behind five Hall of Famers (Collins, 160; Lazzeri, 127; Rod Carew, 126; Joe Morgan, 125; Gordon, 125), two players who retired almost a century ago (Larry Doyle, 130; Del Pratt, 123), a criminally underrated great at the position (Bobby Grich, 126) and Cano (119).
Pedroia has emerged as a player capable of impacting the game in the batter’s box, on the bases and in the field, someone who combines incredible hand-eye coordination with a career-long determination to make him, pound-for-pound, the best baseball player on the planet.
“Top of the line, man,” David Ortiz said of Pedroia, taking stock of where the second baseman ranks among all of the luminaries with whom he’s played. “He’s in the top second basemen who ever played the game. He makes things happen. The craziest thing about him is defensively, he might be the best I’ve ever seen. Then when he comes to hit, you can put him in any spot in the lineup and it looks like he’s been there his whole life. He’s pretty remarkable.”
Pedroia plays with an abandon that left former Sox manager Terry Francona constantly in awe of the idea that he was “willing himself” and his team to win. There is nothing measured about his approach, no reluctance to dive or do anything else that would suggest a choice of longevity over a desperation to convert over play.
“He doesn’t care. He dives all over in practice, in spring training,” Ortiz said. “That’s a psychopath.”
That is one of many apt descriptions of a player who inspires reverence from his teammates and opponents alike, and whose list of accomplishments at an early stage of his career is already long.
He possesses the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year trophy, the 2008 AL MVP, a Silver Slugger award and two Gold Gloves. He’s been named to three All-Star Games.
“I don’t care, man,” Pedroia said of such accomplishments. “I like playing, I love being around the guys, I love my teammates. I love playing in Boston. I work hard. But I just care if we win or lose. I don’t care how I do. It doesn’t mean that much to me. I’d rather get one hit and win than four hits and lose. I just want to be here, win, have fun, and enjoy the city of Boston. It’s a special place to play, in front of these fans.
“If people say that [he is among the best second basemen ever], that’s a great honor, but it’s not why I’m playing. My job is to be the best second baseman on this team. That’s it. If I can do the little things to help us win or the big things to help us win, then that’s what I’m supposed to do that day. I don’t look ahead. This game, it’s too hard, man. Shoot, I was rolling in 2010 and took one swing ...” he said, trailing off at the memory of the broken foot he suffered in the middle of 2010 when slamming a foul ball off his left instep. “That’s where I’ve changed as a player. One day at a time -- what can I do to help us?”
Toward that end, he is driven not just to remain satisfied with what he has done but to improve upon it. At a time when the Red Sox are desperate for players to assert themselves, Pedroia is equally desperate to be such a player, not because he cares about his resume but instead because he understands what doing so will mean for his team’s wins column. Collective accomplishment fuels his desire to get better.
“I’m still young, I’m still learning, trying to get better every year, every day. You’ve got to put in hard work to do that,” Pedroia said. “Hopefully I can continue to get better for the next, whatever, 10 years.”
At least in the early phases of 2012, there is evidence to suggest he is doing just that.