Pedroia’s Possible Premature Parting

“You don’t know the end result, and that part’s hard. So that’s why a little reflection right now, I need to reevaluate, go home, chill out and see how everything responds.”

– Dustin Pedroia, 5/27/19 press conference

The fat lady hasn’t sung for Dustin Pedroia, but she’s at least warming up for her aria. Pedroia, Red Sox manager Alex Cora, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski took a break from any Memorial Day barbecues to hold a press conference updating Pedroia’s injury status.

As you probably know by now, the news was not of the optimistic variety, with Pedroia announcing that he was taking a break from any rehab that specifically targeted a return to baseball in 2019. Pedroia’s knee has been a problem for years and he originally underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus after the 2016 season.

Not all of Pedroia’s missed 2017 time was due to the knee injury, with the infielder also suffering issues with his ribs, his wrist, and even a nasal contusion after getting hit in the nose by a foul ball he hit off home plate. Complicating the situation was the hard slide from Manny Machado in an April 2017 game — there was a controversy at the time whether it was a dirty play — that led to Pedroia limping off the field. Pedroia’s stated in the past that he doesn’t hold a grudge against Machado, but that he does think about that injury.

Manny's Hard Slide, 4/21/17

Pedroia's Nose Catches a Foul, 9/18/17 (NESN)

After offseason surgery during the 2017-2018 winter that attempted to restore cartilage to his knee, Pedroia has suffered numerous setbacks, only getting into a few games in 2018 and 2019. When asked if he would return, Pedroia responded that he was not sure he’d ever play again.

“I think time will go by and I’ll know more about it. I haven’t had a day off in a long time. Every day I wake up and I do some sort of rehab to do anything. I haven’t sat down and thought about something like that or anything, I just know that right now I need a break from just the everyday stresses of dealing with what I’m dealing with and that’s it.”

– Dustin Pedroia, 5/27/19 press conference

If Pedroia never takes the field again, it ends one of this generation’s most-debated player vs. player matchups, Dustin Pedroia vs. Robinson Canó. While the arguments have cooled down a bit with Pedroia’s injuries and Canó’s departure to Seattle, for about a decade, mentioning the “wrong” one as being better than the other was a sure way to enrage a Red Sox or Yankee fan.

Canó’s struggled a bit in 2019, still below replacement level a third of the way through 2019 and suffering his own less-severe injury in the form of a nagging quadriceps. As of now, ZiPS projects Canó to finish the 2019 season with a .257/.309/.403 triple-slash, good enough for only 1.2 WAR, his worst season since a down 2008. But even though ZiPS only projects Canó for a few additional WAR over his career, he’s won the career WAR battle by a margin larger than the inherent certainties of this summary stat.

Will a career-truncated Pedroia make Cooperstown at some point in the mid-2020s? I will have enough years in the BBWAA to have a Hall of Fame vote by this point — as will my colleague, Jay Jaffe, who is a few years closer than I am — and I am fairly certain to cast a vote for Pedroia.

I consider peak value to be significant, and Pedroia had the sustained peak of a Hall of Fame second baseman, 16th all-time in WAR7 (using baseball-reference WAR, which similarly has Pedroia behind Canó). But since nobody has appointed me the All-Knowing, All-Powerful, Emperor-God of Cooperstown, there will be a lot more people voting on Pedroia than just me, and their record of voting on peak value is quite mixed.

Kirby Puckett made the Hall of Fame easily, getting 82% of the vote in his first year of the ballot. But one has to wonder if the suddenness of Puckett’s disappearance — he literally woke up one day without vision in an eye and never played again — helped his case with the voters.

Other recent inductions are no more helpful as a guide. In terms of injuries slowing down and ending a career rather than a sudden stop, Pedro Martinez could be stated as a parallel, but the problem with that is that as terrific as Pedroia has been, Pedro contended for one of the best peaks for anybody, ever, and should have been a shoo-in before he even left Boston.

What worries me is the case of Johan Santana, a pitcher I would have voted for if I had gotten the opportunity. He had a very high peak brought down in early-mid 30s by injuries, and even when accounting for a very full ballot, Santana only got crickets, falling off the ballot after a single year with only 2.4% of the vote.

In the last 40 years, the only players who have been inducted by the BBWAA with such an injury-shortened career are Puckett and Bruce Sutter, who stopped by shoulder injuries. I’m not even sure Sutter would be inducted today as the voter base is getting younger and he didn’t even make it to the 10 years that is the current ballot requirement.

There’s the Veterans Committee route, but that’s even more uncertain. It was enough to get Addie Joss in, but it took 68 years after his death.

Perhaps the best case for Pedroia is Lou Boudreau. Boudreau was slowed down by a number of injuries, including the arthritis in his ankles that disqualified him from military service in World War II, hanging onto the ballot in his first years before finally being inducted on a weak 1970 ballot; other than Boudreau, only Ralph Kiner got even 50% support, though most of the rest of the top 10 was eventually inducted.

But what did the injuries rob from Pedroia, the Red Sox, and ultimately, all of baseball fandom (even the Yankees fans)? Let’s set the time machine to before the 2014 season, as Pedroia missed more than a third of the 2015 season with a hamstring injury. ZiPS saw an additional 87 career home runs, just over 1100 hits (enough to get him around 2500), and a finish just under 60 WAR. Only flying back to after the 2016 season still left Pedroia with enough projected WAR to finish in the upper 50s.

That would have been enough to give him a score of 59.0 per Jaffe’s JAWS by Baseball Reference reckoning, passing Bobby Grich for eighth all-time. And with an increased number of Hall of Fame voters looking at this kind of data, that may have been enough to get him where Grich and Lou Whitaker didn’t get: Cooperstown (Canó has already passed this number).

My hope is that given a full 10 months to rest his knee, Dustin Pedroia will find enough left to be able to resume his career and go out in the fashion he deserves, rendering this article happily completely outdated. If we’ve seen the last of Pedroia at second base for the Red Sox, everybody who cares about baseball will be a little poorer.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Pedroia always struck me as the most understandable scouting “miss” I can think of. If I saw a guy in the minors who was his size and swung like an absolute maniac all the time, I probably wouldn’t have figured that would work in the majors, either. And yet….

Barnard
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Barnard

Not sure I’d call him a miss – he was a 2nd round pick and BA Top 100 prospect in 2006. I was young in ’06 so maybe I’m not familiar with the conversation around him at the time, but seems like he was pretty recognized to me.

Red
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So, keep in mind that Altuve was dismissed all the way up (I think Kevin Goldstein bucked the trend there), and Altuve cane after Pedroia. Even a stat line guy like Sickels had Pedroia as a B level guy. There isn’t no skepticism about certain body types now, but there was more of it 15 years ago, I think.