Of all the players Red Sox fans have had to worry about in recent seasons, Dustin Pedroia has been near the bottom of the list. The diminutive second baseman has long been one of the best players at his position in baseball, and except for an injury-plagued 2010 campaign, Pedroia has compiled at least four fWAR every year dating back to 2007. Pairing elite defensive skills with a line-drive stroke and more power than you’d ever expect from a 5-foot-8 infielder, Pedroia has been a perennial All-Star and team leader throughout his career in Boston.
Although he still provided loads of value for the Red Sox in 2014 (producing 4.4 fWAR to lead the club), Pedroia had a disappointing season by his standards. Nagging wrist injuries limited him to 135 games and likely sapped much of his power, with Pedroia hitting just .278/.337/.376 in 609 plate appearances. The seven home runs he managed was the lowest single-season total of his career.
Injuries aside, Pedroia’s sudden loss of power underscored a worrying trend for the Red Sox as their franchise second baseman enters his early thirties. Pedroia has suffered a decrease in power in each of the last four seasons, and in 2014, his slugging percentage fell below league average for the first time.
That Pedroia’s wrist injury, which required offseason surgery, limited him at the plate is certainly a reasonable explanation. Without a healthy wrist, Pedroia struggled to drive and pull the ball like he has in years past.
However, the more important question for the Red Sox isn’t necessarily whether Pedroia’s wrist affected his performance. More pressing is whether the 31-year-old can stay healthy as he ages and continues to play a dirt-dog brand of baseball. He spent much of the 2013 season fighting through problems with his thumb. Will injuries continue to affect his performance and ability to stay on the field? That’s a vital question given the seven years and $97.5 million remaining on Pedroia’s contract.
Looking closely at Pedroia’s 2014 performance, it’s clear he struggled against fastballs, specifically those on the inner half. Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan detailed how opposing hurlers began attacking Pedroia with inside fastballs more and more as the season wore on. Long the type of pitch he punished in his prime, pitchers were able to thrive against Pedroia by attacking him with velocity on the inner half.
This zone chart from Brooks Baseball shows Pedroia’s slugging percentage on fastballs (as well as sinkers and cutters) back in the 2012 season. Pedroia hit the ball hard pretty consistently (he finished the year with a .290/.347/.449 line), but he especially thrived on inside fastballs and those up in the zone.
Fast forward to last season, and Pedroia’s zone profile changed considerably against pitches thrown harder:
He no longer punished inside fastballs with regularity and didn’t have nearly as much success on pitches left up in the zone. For Pedroia to rebound in 2015 and get back to his best, he’ll have to make opposing pitchers pay on the inner half once again. As Sullivan wrote, we’ll know pretty quickly come April and May if Pedroia’s bat speed and wrist strength have returned.
Of course, even if Pedroia is no longer the elite hitter he was a few years ago, he can still provide plenty of value to the Red Sox. He is the best defensive second baseman in MLB and might have put forth his best season with the glove in 2014, even as his wrist was hurting. Pedroia is so good defensively that he can still be one of Boston’s best players without an All-Star-level bat. Considering the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval this offseason, they don’t need Pedroia to be the MVP candidate he once was.
But Red Sox fans will surely hope to see a little more pop from Pedroia this season. If he can stay healthy, there is little reason to doubt that his power and quality of contact will improve. From an off-field perspective, little has changed. Pedroia remains the same cocky player that has manned the keystone for Boston over the past eight years. Seeing him turn on an inside fastball again and send it over the monster will still be a sight for sore eyes, however, and a sign that Pedroia still has plenty left offensively.