BALTIMORE — As the Boston Red Sox continue to pull away from the field in pursuit of their second American League East title in four years, most of the attention has been focused on MVP candidate Mookie Betts, Cy Young Award hopeful Rick Porcello and, of course, David Ortiz‘s last and utterly historic hurrah.
That’s exactly how Dustin Pedroia likes it.
On the list of things Pedroia detests, talking about himself ranks only slightly behind losing, which takes a back seat to nothing. Never mind that he is hitting better than .400 since the second week of August and creeping up on Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, once the runaway leader in the AL batting race. The Red Sox’s second-longest tenured player and de facto captain is content merely to come and go each day with little fanfare, fewer words and three or four hits in between.
Mention that he recently fell one knock short of tying a major-league record for consecutive at-bats with a hit (12) and Pedroia will say, straight-faced, “Yeah, I heard something, but I didn’t know what it was.” Note that he has the highest on-base percentage (.430) of any hitter with at least 100 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot this season and he will tell you, “I don’t really think about it, man. I just try to have good at-bats and get on base and start the offense. That’s basically it.”
Pedroia has no qualms about touting Betts’ MVP chops or Ortiz’s legacy. But he doesn’t suffer fools or triviality. And when it comes to the fact that he’s having his best season since at least 2011 — and at an age (33) when most second basemen, especially one with a hair-on-fire playing style, are well into an irreversible decline — Pedroia has mastered the art of claiming there’s nothing to see here, even when there plainly is.
Leave it to his teammates, then, to say it for him, especially with him out of the lineup Tuesday night due to soreness in his left knee. The Red Sox are “hopeful,” according to manager John Farrell, that Pedroia will make his return on Wednesday night against the Baltimore Orioles (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), and let there be no doubt how much they need him.
“Pedroia is a guy that loves the game. He plays the game like nobody I’ve ever seen,” Ortiz said. “I’m older than Pedroia and I learn from watching him. Pedey is like, this guy is, I don’t even know how to describe him. But Pedroia is the best thing you can have on a ballclub.”
To understand how Pedroia got back here, to a level at which he’s in line for his first Gold Glove since 2014 and bound to get MVP votes for the first time since he finished seventh in 2013, you have to rewind to the offseason and a change in his workout program.
Earlier in his career, Pedroia was a regular at Exos (formerly Athletes’ Performance), a training center for elite athletes in Phoenix, Arizona. But he fractured his left index finger late in the 2012 season, played the entirety of 2013 with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb that eventually required surgery and had another procedure in 2014 to repair a tendon in his left wrist.
All the injuries forced him to alter his workouts. In 2013, because the Red Sox won the World Series, he was unable to have surgery until November, preventing him from doing his usual upper body conditioning. Perhaps as a consequence he posted career-lows in home runs (seven) and slugging (.376) in 2014. Following that season, he focused on strengthening his upper body, an approach that caused him to lose some flexibility and athleticism.
But Pedroia was finally healthy this past winter, which enabled him to return to Exos and get back to the training regimen that worked in the past. According to performance coach Eric Dannenberg, that included strengthening his torso and shoulders to better prepare his body for the pounding of diving for balls.
“I just trained to be an athlete, not to do certain things,” Pedroia said earlier in the season. “I’m not trying to hit a home run or drive the ball. I’m trying, whatever is thrown at me, to be able to acclimate and make a play. That’s it. I trained to be an athlete instead of more sport-specific.”
Said manager John Farrell: “We saw right from the first day of spring training, he came in with a different body type. He was more lean. He focused a lot this offseason on first-step quickness rather than maybe pure strength and bulk. That’s one reason he has been able to maintain the range [at second base].”
Ironically, the very thing that makes Pedroia great — his all-out, all-the-time mentality — was hurting him as he got older. The Red Sox pleaded with him not to slide headfirst, especially into first base, which was precisely how he injured his thumb on Opening Day in 2013. They also stressed the value of taking a day off every once in a while, even though his preference is always to play every inning of every game.
“The best decision ever made was last year, telling him, ‘Look, you are going to play when you are able. We don’t want to get things worse,'” Ortiz said. “And he learned. He would’ve played with a broken foot, you know? I have never seen anybody doing things like that. But as you get older, things are different. He learned the memo. He has been able to take care of himself.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: Pedroia’s resolve to prove people wrong. When you’re a professional athlete and you’re listed at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, you almost have to have a chip affixed to your shoulder in order to achieve the level Pedroia has reached.
And it didn’t escape Pedroia’s notice that some metrics indicated his defense was diminished last season. According to Fangraphs, for instance, he averaged 11.6 defensive runs saved from 2007-14 but was three runs below the league average for second basemen last season. Red Sox officials claimed to not see a major difference, though, and this year, Pedroia is back to his typical level at 11 defensive runs saved.
“There’s nothing in Dustin’s mind that’s insurmountable,” Farrell said. “He relishes challenges or something that might be stated that he can’t do. I think he uses that in such a positive way to prove others wrong. He’s into his 30s now, and I don’t see that slowing down the way he’s wired.”
Barring a 2011-esque collapse in the season’s final week, the Red Sox are headed to the postseason for the fifth time in Pedroia’s 11-year career. And on this particular team, he is the bridge between generations.
Pedroia was two years from making his major-league debut when Ortiz helped the 2004 Sox reverse the Curse. But he played a central role in the 2007 and 2013 World Series runs, which pre-dated the arrivals of Betts, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and the rest of the Red Sox’s young core.
“When I hear people criticizing Pedroia because of years before, I just laugh,” Ortiz said. “If there’s a player I would like to have on my team, especially when you have a bunch of young guys on the ballclub, there’s not a better player to have around than Pedroia.”