It’s a rare day when a player looks back on a championship-winning season with something approaching regret, but then, Dustin Pedroia didn’t get much chance to contribute to the Red Sox during their World Series-winning 2018 campaign. After being limited to 105 games in 2017, largely due to ongoing discomfort in his left knee, Pedroia underwent an experimental cartilage restoration procedure that was expected to cost him the first couple months of last season. He returned in late May, but played just three games before inflammation forced him back to the injured list, and he spent the rest of the season as a bystander as the Sox overcame his absence while romping to their fourth title in the last 15 seasons.
“I don’t regret doing it, but looking back and knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it,” Pedroia told reporters in Fort Myers last week, referring to the surgery, called osteochondral allograft transfer surgery, which involves grafting cartilage from a cadaver. While basketball and soccer players had undergone the procedure prior to Pedroia, teammate Steven Wright was the only baseball player who had done so.
The 35-year-old second baseman, who had previously undergone surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee in October 2016 (among his numerous other ailments), believes both that he pushed himself too hard and that some of the expectations with regards to recovery times were “a little off.” In retrospect, he believes that avoiding the surgery in favor of longer rest and rehab might have been a more productive route. “It’s a complicated surgery,” said Pedroia. “The cartilage in my knee is great now. The graft is the thing. You’re putting somebody else’s bone in your body. To get that to incorporate fully, there are so many things going into it that.”
For what it’s worth, Wright, who was limited to 53.2 innings last year by three separate trips to the injured list for left knee inflammation (as well as a 15-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy) and missed the entire postseason, is similarly less than enamored with the results of his cartilage restoration surgery, which took place on May 8, 2017, 5 1/2 months prior to Pedroia’s. “It’s been tougher mentally than physically,” he told reporters last week. “It’s a game where it’s tough on your body, but then when you’ve got a flat tire going out there trying to pitch, it makes it a little bit tougher.” Wright later said that his knee currently feels like it’s been from a flat tire to a spare.
In anticipation of Pedroia’s early-2018 absence, the Red Sox retained July 2017 acquisition Eduardo Núñez in free agency, but both he and utilityman Brock Holt struggled in the role, to the point of topping my Replacement Level Killers list in late July. To that point, Sox second sackers had combined for a sad-sack -0.7 WAR. On July 30, they traded for the Tigers’ Ian Kinsler, who was replacement-level as well, though he did represent a defensive upgrade. In all, the eight players Boston used at second base — a cast rounded out by Brandon Phillips, Tzu-Wei Lin, Mookie Betts (!), and Blake Swihart — combined to hit .252/.308/.350 for a 75 wRC+ and -0.3 WAR. Only the Giants and Tigers were worse in the last two categories.
All of the participants save for Phillips and Kinser (who signed with the Padres) remain on the Red Sox’s 40-man roster. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters last week that he’s not expecting Pedroia to play 150 games. “We’re hopeful that he’s a 125-game player at this point,” said Dombrowsk. “We do feel we have some people who are solid and can fill in. To fill in if [Pedroia] plays 120, guys like Holt, a guy like Nunez coming over there. Even some depth with Tzu-Wei Lin in our organization we like a great deal.”
Our current depth charts projections, which feature Pedroia getting 74% of the team’s plate appearances at second base, forecast him for a .272/.344/.390 line with 2.0 WAR, and for the group as a whole to return 2.5 WAR, good for 12th in the majors. While the Red Sox would probably be overjoyed if things unfold that way, history suggests there may be less reason for optimism. Along the lines of what I did for Troy Tulowitzki last August, I asked Dan Szymborski to put together a list of infielders who are over 30 — shortstops and third basemen as well as second basemen, in order to start with a larger pool than the Tulo study — and missed all or nearly all of a season, then returned to the majors. I used 100 plate appearances as the upper limit for the “missed” season (Pedroia had 13), and confirmed with a variety of resources that the players’ absences were due to injuries, not detours to foreign leagues or mere attrition. As before, I considered only players from 1980 onward. The resulting list of 18 players was less than encouraging, to say the least:
One can wave off individual results here and there on various grounds. Sports medicine has improved vastly over the past four decades, and in considering Pedroia, it’s debatable how much we can extrapolate from players’ failures to recover from injuries to other body parts, such as Jeter’s ankle, the shoulders of Burleson, Glaus, and Perry, or the elbows of Fernandez, Howe (who also underwent ankle surgery), and a quartet of Tommy John surgery recipients (Furcal, Izturis, Santana, and Velarde). We can also debate the propriety of comparing the fates of players who were 30 or 38 at the start of these sequences to that of a 34-year-old.
Even so, within the timeframe, I couldn’t find any examples of an over-30 infielder who was significantly above replacement level both before missing most or all of a season and then again in his return year. Gonzalez (the “Sea Bass” one) underwent microfracture surgery in his left knee in March 2008 and did post a big 3.0 WAR season in 2010; he’s in this table twice thanks to a 2012 torn ACL. And Velarde, who underwent Tommy John surgery, totaled about 10 WAR from 1999-2001, but both needed at least one more year to recover form.
That said, three players who had dreadful seasons pre-injury did rebound substantially upon returning. Lansford, the regular third baseman for the A’s from 1983-1990 (including their three pennant-winning teams from 1988-1990) was pretty lousy in the last of those seasons, then suffered serious right shoulder and left knee injuries while snowmobiling in Oregon in January 1991. A’s vice president Sandy Alderson said at the time, “Carney’s contract doesn’t say he can snowmobile and it doesn’t say he can’t,” adding that the team declined to pursue terminating his employment. Lansford played just five games in the 1991 season, but returned for a solid 1992 season before retiring.
Fernandez, who racked up 43.5 WAR in a career that spanned from 1983-2001, endured a career-worst season as the Yankees’ starting shortstop in 1995, then fractured his right elbow in March 1996. The Yankees turned to the 22-year-old Jeter, who went on to win AL Rookie of the Year honors while helping the team win its first championship in 18 years. Fernandez missed the entire season, then resurfaced with the Indians in 1997, hitting for a 93 wRC+ with 2.1 WAR; he spent three more years in the majors and accumulated 4.9 WAR.
Spezio, a useful infielder for the Angels (6.6 WAR from 2000-2003), struggled in the first year of a three-year, $9.15 million deal with the Mariners (67 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR in 415 PA) in 2004. Between being relegated to a backup role by the free agent signings of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, missing 10 weeks due to an oblique strain, and then drawing his release in late August, he was limited to 51 PA in 2005. Divorce, depression, and substance abuse — the last two of which would further derail his career years later — were contributing factors to his 2005 struggles. Nonetheless, he played a significant role for the Cardinals’ 2006 championship team, posting a 123 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR in 321 PA.
Even with that trio in my quick-and-dirty study, the group of players I identified averaged a meager 83 wRC+ and 0.2 WAR in their returns. Limiting the player pool to those whose pre-injury seasons were worth at least 1.0 WAR, which clears out some light hitters whose careers were essentially on their last legs anyway, the averages are 81 wRC+ (down from 105 pre-injury) and 0.0 WAR (down from 2.4) — an even steeper drop that probably owed something to more complete players getting longer leashes.
All of which is to say that if history is a guide, the 2019 Red Sox may not get anything close to the Pedroia they’re used to, the one who has never really had a below-average season. Even in his most injury-wracked campaigns, when his bat has been about average (98 wRC+ in 2014, 101 in 2017), he’s played at a three-win pace, solidly above average if not up to the standard that helped him make four All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves from 2008-14. That said, even a slog of a season is unlikely to mean the end of the line for Pedroia, given that he’s still owed $40 million through 2021 via the eight-year, $110 million extension he signed in July 2013.
If Pedroia can recover some semblance of form, the stakes are high; he still has a shot at a Hall of Fame berth. He’s got the hardware (AL MVP, AL Rookie of the Year, three World Series rings, two of them as starter), but with 1,803 hits, he needs two seasons worth of playing time to reach 2,000, a number that has functioned as a bright-line test for Hall voters when it comes to post-1960 players. Likewise he’s still short in JAWS. He’s 19th among second basemen at 47.3, 9.6 points below the standard, but he’s only 2.0 WAR below the seven-year peak standard (42.4 versus 44.4). Given Chase Utley’s retirement short of 2,000 hits, Kinsler’s fade, and the PED suspension of Robinson Cano, none of this era’s aging second baseman have clear paths to Cooperstown, but a functioning if not fully resurgent Pedrioa would be best positioned to change that.
Of course, talk of any resurgence is premature when discussing a player whose availability can’t yet be taken for granted. If he’s batting leadoff on Opening Day, per manager Alex Cora’s promise for when he’ll return, Pedroia will have hit the first big mark.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.