Dustin Pedroia is among the best defensive second baseman in the game. In 2011, he won his second Gold Glove and his first Fielding Bible Gold Glove. This year he narrowly missed capturing both honors again. The 29-year-old Red Sox stalwart led American League second basemen in fielding percentage and had 11 Defensive Runs Saved. Last year, he had 18.
Twice the National Defensive Player of the Year while playing shortstop at Arizona State, Pedroia switched positions in 2005 when he was in Double-A. With the exception of 74 games at his old position the following year, he hasn’t looked back. Nor has he booted many ground balls, as he has averaged fewer than six errors per season as a professional.
Pedroia talked about infield defense — including his move from shortstop to second base — in the final week of the regular season.
David Laurila: What is the key to being a good defensive second baseman?
Dustin Pedroia: There are a lot of really good ones in the league, and everyone has their own way, but positioning is big. If you put yourself in a good spot…. It depends on who’s up and it depends on what our pitcher is throwing.
I actually put a lot of pressure on our pitchers making their pitch. If they call a fastball away to a left-handed hitter and, before the pitch comes, I take a half step to my right and he leaves it over the middle and the hitter pulls it… that’s just a risk that I take. But if he hits his spot and the hitter hits the ball up the middle, and I get there by that extra small step, that could be the difference between winning and losing the game.
I remember my first year, when [Curt] Schilling was pitching. When the catcher put down fastball away, I’d say that on 20 of 30 pitches, he’d be hitting the fastball away. And if he missed a pitch, it was usually not to the middle of the plate, it was a ball away. I could trust that, so I didn’t need to take a half step to my right. I could take a full step.
Before the first game of every series, I come out and watch BP, primarily the guys I don’t really know. But it’s so tough. Like I said, a lot of it is our pitcher and whether he’s a sinkerballer or throws a cutter. Whatever pitch he features, and the location of the pitch, is going to be the basis of where I position myself.
DL: What are you watching for in batting practice?
DP: If you watch Derek Jeter in batting practice, he’s always inside the ball, so I know, in the back of my head, that he’s going to hit the ball from foul pole to foul pole. He could hit the ball anywhere. Then, if you watched Kevin Millar’s swing, and he was dead pull in BP — his swing path was dead-pull — so I’d pretty much know he’s never going to hit a ground ball to me. I can play way up the middle and help our shortstop by letting him get more in the hole, so hopefully he can take a hit away. He can eliminate what the hitter is trying to do. And maybe the hitter looks out there and sees that, and it puts something in his head. He might try to do something different, and that takes him out of his game.
DL: Is your approach any different at second base than it was at shortstop?
DP: I’ve played second now for six straight years — I haven’t played short in a long time — but I view it as the same thing. You’re in every pitch; you’re looking at which pitch is going to be thrown, you’re always communicating with your outfielders, your shortstop and your first baseman. I’m talking to the third baseman if there are two outs, saying, `I’ve got him the short way.’ The only things different are the double play and a longer throw to get one out.
DL: Could you have been a solid big-league shortstop the past six seasons?
DP: Yeah, I think so. I don’t see why not. I probably would have worked on a couple more things. I’d have tried to get my arm stronger, although I still kind of do. I go over there to take ground balls a lot, just to mess around, just to make sure I’ve still got it.
DL: Could you be a shortstop now?
DP: I still think I could be a shortstop. For sure. But what makes our team better is for me to play second. When they told me that in 2007… it’s not like it’s my decision. They told me that’s what would help us win and that’s how I would be playing every day, so I said OK. Will I be a shortstop again? Probably not. I don’t think anyone wants me to move from [second base].
DL: Who deserves most of the credit for making you a good defensive second baseman?
DP: Everybody. I’ve had guys hit me ground balls all through my whole life. It was always preached to me — because I’m not very big — that a big part of my game is playing defense. It’s taking runs away, not just scoring them. For however many swings I took, I had to take that many ground balls. It wasn’t just one infield coach, it was all of them.
DL: You’ve committed 50 errors in nine professional seasons. What does that mean to you?
DP: Is that a lot?
DL: Derek Jeter had over 50 in his second professional season.
DP: Oh, nice, I guess it’s not a lot.
I take pride in making the routine play. That’s the most important thing, because if our pitcher makes his pitch and gets a ground ball rolled over to me, he’s done his job. I have to do mine. I have to make sure I make those plays and get the outs. The bonus is making the great play, or turning a double play on a broken bat, when maybe it shouldn’t have been turned. Those are added bonuses. The most important thing for me is making the routine plays, so my team can get back to swinging their bats.
DL: Baseball America’s 2007 Prospect Handbook said you had below-average speed and range. Was that accurate?
DP: I don’t know. I don’t think I made any errors in Low-A or High-A, at short [in 2004]. I think that was in something like 45 games. I made a few in Portland, at second. I got to balls. I don’t remember… you know what, to be honest with you, I was fatter when I was younger. I didn’t know how to condition myself as well. I never ran much in the off-season. I got quicker, which helped me get to more balls as I got older. I feel like I’ve always been a good defensive player, but I’m better now than when I was younger.
You get more experience; you get smarter. You’ve been around and you see swings and stuff like that. It’s crazy. We play against the Rays — geez, a million times — and B.J. Upton comes up, and I’ve taken hits away from him up the middle and in the hole. He’s taken hits away from me, too, in that gap and in that gap. Now it’s kind of like a game between us, you know what I mean?
You square a ball up and it’s all about positioning. He knew… let’s say that [Matt] Garza would throw me away, and I’d hit the ball to center. B.J. would be right there, taking a hit away. I knew [Jon] Lester was going to throw a back-door cutter and he was going to try to shoot it that way. I’d be standing right there. You always have to think about the situation and be smart about it. [Evan] Longoria is great about that, too. Guys that throw me sliders that break further outside, and I get around one and hit the hole, Longoria is playing off the line. But if the guy is going to throw me… like [Jeremy] Hellickson would throw me changeups in, so he’ll scoot this way.
If you look at all the really good defensive players, they’re always one step ahead of the hitter. They know how to get that extra edge.
DL: To what extent is your positioning dictated by the coaching staff?
DP: To be honest with you, they’ve let me… my first infield coach was Luis Alicea, and then Bogie [Tim Bogar] was my infield coach the last couple of years and now it’s Jerry [Royster]. We’ll go over stuff on guys, but mostly guys I don’t know, maybe younger guys who just got called up. I’m always communicating with them, like, “Hey what do you think?” Let’s say Lester is throwing more sinkers today. Should I play the guy an extra step to pull, or should I stay straight up? There’s always communication, but for the most part they let me go out there and play on instincts.
DL: Does it matter who your double-play partner is?
DP: It matters. You get a comfort level with guys the more you play with them. It’s been crazy. I’ve played with a lot of shortstops. Alex Gonzalez twice, [Julio] Lugo, Jed [Lowrie], Mike [Aviles]. I’ve played with Iggy [Jose Iglesias] a little bit. I played with Hanley [Ramirez] in the minors. And with every guy, the more games you’re out there with them, the more you get on the same page. I’m sure that if Alex Gonzalez was out here right now, I’d know where he wants the ball and he’d know where I want the ball. You build that comfort level to where you’re basically married. Sometimes you don’t even need to communicate, because you already know where they’re going to be.
DL: What differentiates Mike Aviles and Jose Iglesias?
DP: I view defense as the less mistakes you make, the more opportunity your team has of winning. That’s my whole philosophy. When I was in college, that’s what my infield coach told me. I played at Arizona State and we always had a good offense. My job as a shortstop was to make all the plays that I’m capable of making. If you look up at the scoreboard at the end of the day, and you have no errors, you didn’t give them more chances. They had 27 outs to give, not 28 or 29.
I think Mike views defense the same way I do. Iggy is so gifted on defense that he’s going to get to more balls than anybody. He’s going to take away more hits and save more runs, but when you do stuff like that, you’re going to make a couple more errors, because you’re doing things most guys can’t do. He’s going to field the ball in back of wherever, and throw it, and it’s going to airmail for an error. Of course, if he makes that play, he saves a run.
There are different types of defensive players, and they’re both great. Iggy and Mike have been unbelievable this year. Iggy… did you see the game we just played against Baltimore? He can take over a game, just by playing defense.
Early on, everyone got on Mike, especially, “Oh, he’s not going to have any range.” But he’s been unbelievable. He gets to balls and he’s got a cannon. His arm makes up for anything.
DL: Aviles graded out well in defensive metrics this year. Do you care what the numbers say about you?
DP: I don’t really know how a lot of these numbers things work. I know that if you look around the league, you can tell who the really good defensive shortstops are, but I don’t know how they all rate out. Alexi Ramirez is really good. [Erick] Aybar is good. Brendan Ryan is great. J.J. Hardy has been great. I don’t know his D rates out, but I think he’s one of the most underrated players, defensively. He’s always positioning himself right.
When I played with Mike Lowell, he was always in the right position at third base. His throws were great. You can just look at the game, and watch guys, and tell who is a really good defensive player. I don’t need numbers to tell me to stay away from hitting the ball toward third base when we play the Rays. Positioning in big. It’s about being in the right spot and making the plays.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.