The Red Sox are scuffling and one of the biggest reasons why is a lack of offense. Dustin Pedroia is one of their core players and someone the team expects to help carry them through tough times. The problem is, he's scuffling too. Despite his slow season to date, most people don't seem too worried about Pedroia. The common perception seems to be that one of these days the Laser Show™ will start again and Pedroia will be his old MVP-caliber self and everything will be wonderful.
Since his first full season in 2007, Pedroia has been the second most valuable second baseman in baseball behind only Chase Utley, according to FanGraphs WAR. By Runs Created (RC), a stat developed by Bill James and available on Baseball Reference, Pedroia is second again, though this time he's ahead of Utley and behind Robinson Cano. The point is, regardless of the stat you pick, Pedroia has been one of the three best second basemen in baseball since 2007.
Broadly speaking, Pedroia is still excellent defensively, both by the numbers and the eye test, so that's not where any large loss of value or production is stemming from. Pedroia's output at the plate is where the problem lies. Compare his slash numbers (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) this season to his 2011 season (his best by FanGraphs WAR) and you can see that all three have dropped. His batting average has dropped 40 points, his on-base has dropped 47 points, and his slugging percentage has dropped 87 points. Those are all substantial drops, but outside of this season where his average is down in the .260s, batting average hasn't been a problem. While his on-base percentage is down to .340 this year, last season he got on base 37 percent of the time, so same story for Pedroia's on-base ability. Pedroia's slugging percentage, however, has dropped four straight seasons, so let's look at that.
Why has it dropped? There could be a number of reasons, some of which would absolve Pedroia of the charge of diminished skills. For one, the offensive environment could have changed. And indeed it has. In 2010, the height of Pedroia's power when he slugged .493, the average hitter slugged .403. This season, when Pedroia's slugging has dipped all the way to .387, the average hitter is slugging .392. This season, the average team has scored 4.18 runs per game, but in 2010 the average team scored 4.38 runs per game. So at least part of Pedroia's power loss can be attributed to the lessened offensive environment he's playing in. It's simply harder to hit for power now than it was four seasons ago. But clearly that's not all of it. Pedroia's power is down a lot more than the average player's power, and in fact it has gone from above average to below average, so there must be other reasons.
Pedroia is still on the Red Sox so we can't attribute this in any way to a new team or new league, and Fenway Park hasn't been altered at all, so that's not it.*
*The offensive environment of a ballpark can change over seasons even if the ballpark itself isn't physically changed, but not to the extent that it would be solely responsible for Pedroia's loss of power.
Pedroia isn't walking or striking out substantially more or less than he did in his peak seasons. He's still putting the ball in play at roughly the same rate as well, and looking at his batted ball data, he's not hitting more ground balls (which would lead to a drop in slugging percentage, as ground balls do not ever go over the fence). In fact, he's hitting fewer ground balls and fewer infield fly balls (i.e. infield pop-ups, which also never go over the fence), and more line drives. Line drives do go over the fence, but mostly they go for singles and doubles. On average, line drives go for hits more than any other batted ball type. For example, this season, batters are hitting .693 on line drives. Line drives are very good for hitters. This is Pedroia's skillset in a nutshell, and what has made him such a good hitter throughout his career. This season, his line drive rate is up to 24.3 percent, the highest of his career.
There are some caveats to that though. For one, all line drives are not the same. On one end of the spectrum you have some that shoot over the fence at a thousand miles per hour, while some straddle the line between pop-ups and line drives. In truth, because of the binary characterization of line drives (a hit is either a line drive or it isn't) there is flex in the numbers. In other words, despite the importance of line drives to hitting, having a high line drive percentage doesn't tell us how good a hitter we're looking at. Indeed, if you look at Pedroia's line drive percentages through his career, you might come away thinking 2011 was his weakest season, but in fact he hit .307/.387/.474 that season and was worth 7.6 wins by FanGraphs WAR.
We have to look deeper. PITCH f/x data exists now that tells us not only what pitches Pedroia sees and where they were, but what Pedroia did with them. By looking at the data we can glean the following information. Pedroia is:
- swinging at roughly the same number of pitches outside the zone as usual.
- swinging at roughly the same number of pitches inside the zone as usual.
- hitting the same number of pitches inside the strike zone when he swings.
- missing more pitches outside the strike zone when he swings.
That tells us something new. Pedroia isn't chasing pitches out of the strike zone at a higher rate, but he is missing more when he swings outside the zone than he typically has in the past. Swinging outside the zone sounds bad, and all things being equal it is better to swing at strikes, but Pedroia gets a number of hits on pitches outside the zone. In his career, fastballs up in the zone and inside or high are pitches Pedroia tomahawks at the Green Monster in left field for homers or doubles. In his career, a good number of his career singles are on pitches low and away that he serves into right field and, similarly, on pitches low and in that he lines into left. We are only talking about two and a half months worth of data here, but this season Pedroia isn't hitting the low and in pitch or the low and away pitch for singles as much as he did in previous seasons. Maybe more distressing is that he isn't hitting the up and in pitch over the fence. Pedroia has four home runs this season and they are all on pitches right down the middle.
A large number of those up-and-in pitches that Pedroia used to crush are either going for doubles (not so bad) or he is simply missing them all together. There could be any number of reasons why, including a small sample of plate appearances that aren't giving us a fair view of Pedroia's current true talent level. "I'm not a scout" is the traditional beginning to a sentence that a non-scout writes when he's about to write pseudo-scouty things, so be warned. But one factor to this trend could be a loss of bat speed. I'm nowhere near sure that's the problem though.
Pedroia's platoon splits are another issue. Traditionally right-handed hitters like Pedroia feast on left-handed pitchers, but in Pedroia's career that hasn't always been the case. In fact, earlier in his career, there was a two-year period where Pedroia's hitting against lefties was pretty awful. He compensated by beating up on right-handed hitters, which, if you have to pick one type of pitcher to beat up on, is probably the way to do it, as most pitchers are right handed. That was in 2010 when he had a .910 OPS against right-handers and a .700 OPS against left-handers. The very next season though, things reversed, and Pedroia put up an .800 OPS against right-handers and a 1.010 OPS against left-handers. So you see how these things can go. One year, a guy is 1941 Ted Williams against righties and the next he's 2014 Ted Williams.
This season Pedroia's handling lefties just fine (.842 OPS), but he's done very little against righties (.674 OPS). In fact, getting back to the drop in slugging percentage that was mentioned earlier in this piece, the drop that began in 2010 is, from a split perspective, due to a drop in power against right-handed pitchers. That sounds bad, and maybe it is, but with so many factors at play it's virtually impossible to make a declarative statement about what Pedroia's "problem" is. He could have decreased bat speed, but maybe not. He could be playing with an injury. In fact, last season he played all season long with a torn ligament in his thumb. He had surgery during the off-season to correct the problem, but sometimes the body needs more time to fully heal.
Maybe Pedroia has another injury that he's playing with that is affecting his swing, or his bat speed, or his pitch recognition ability just enough to keep him from getting around on those up-and-in pitches he used to crush. Maybe some of those skills have changed just a bit without an injury. Maybe his skills haven't changed at all. Determining true talent can be tricky, especially when talking about platoon splits, as a batter's platoon splits take 1,000 plate appearances to stabilize against each side, and by then, it's likely that the player's true talent level has changed.
In the end we can say a few things we know about Dustin Pedroia. He's not hitting right-handed pitchers as well or with as much power as he has in the past. He's not hitting pitches outside the zone as frequently or with as much power as he has in the past. He's 30 years old now and with that comes a certain degradation of skills compared to a player in his mid- and late-20s. He's a second baseman and second basemen typically don't age as well as other positions -- the counter argument is that truly great players don't tend to be subject to that.
Is Pedroia a truly great player? The Red Sox just gave him an eight-year, $110 million contract extension, signed a year ago July, so clearly they feel like Pedroia isn't on the downhill slope. With his defensive ability, Pedroia doesn't have to hit .300/.400/.500 to be a productive player, but the Red Sox need him to hit better than he is now. Ask Pedroia and he'd probably say relax, man. The Laser Show™ is on its way.
(Research for this article was done at Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Baseball Reference's Play Index.)