Ed Note: Watched Pedroia drive in three runs with two solid hits today, March 25. I could be wrong about 2016. Maybe this will be the year he starts hot. Couldn’t happen to a better guy. If I am about to eat the words dished out below, hallelujah!
Dustin Pedroia, for all his preparation and hard work, never seems ready for baseball in the spring. I remember his first year, beating everything into the turf and even looking uncomfortable in the field, and he seems to come out every season in the same funk.
In yesterday’s exhibition against the Mets he hacked his way through another oh-fer and airmailed a throw to the plate, when he had no chance to get the runner anyway. He gets a lot of AB’s in the spring, more than most starters, but he continues to flail and flub like someone trying to break in to a new position.
Pedroia has always been my Red Sox hero. He is the Tom Brady of the Red Sox for his loyalty, for making fellow players better, for his obvious hustle. He never jumps into controversy for fear of hurting the team. He keeps his head down and runs out every grass-cutter in the infield. How can you not like that kind of player?
Well, I don’t like him much in the spring, because he looks like he’s learning the game all over again. When he is hitting, he takes the outside pitch to right field. When he’s slumping he takes vicious swings and pounds the ball into the turf– a portrait in frustration. I’m thinking, “Go the other way, Dustin. You know how good you are when you do that.” Still he swings vainly from his heels.
And it’s probably a lot more complicated than that. But why the spring malaise? Why do we look at the bench for Brock Holt, when Pedroia is the soul of the Sox? Yeah, we know something magical will happen in May and suddenly pitchers can not get him out. But what about the first month, Dustin? What’s going on then?
Yet I know no one is harder on himself than Dustin Pedroia. His frustration will be double mine. He mutters to himself and pounds his bat and glove into the wall, living the curse of spring. While I mutter, “Take it to right, Dustin.”
It’s a no-brainer that you need hitters who can drive in runs, but that is exactly what the Red Sox lacked this year. Forget the low team batting average and the spotty pitching out of the bullpen. It all turns on driving runs in after the table is set.
Yoenis Cespedes is batting .421 (16-for-38) with runners in scoring position. That’s changed the offense significantly in the last month, even given David Ortiz pitches to hit. There is hope that if one of those guys get to bat with runners in scoring position, something good will happen. Dustin Pedroia can be that kind of hitter when he is well. So is Shane Victorino. After that, no one.
But the Red Sox are now a young, developing team, and we may be able to say that about Xander Bogarts and Mookie Betts and Brock Holt in the future. They are talented young hitters who need some coaching and practice in situational hitting, but they all have the eye for it.
But batting average and power are not enough to score runs and win games. You have to hit when it counts. I question whether Mike Napoli and Daniel Nava and Will Middlebrooks have that skill. They’ll swing at bad pitches even with runners in scoring position. They may hit for average or power, but they are not reliable with RISP. They get desperate and look bad on the low outside or the high inside pitch. Not sure what their future is with the Red Sox, even though I like their desire and intensity.
How do you get that RISP hitting efficiency? I have no idea, but I wish Greg Colbrunn could bring these young players along. I don’t hear anyone giving him credit, so I question whether he is helping in this regard. It seems to me this is a skill that can be taught, even if some players like Cespedes seem to have it innately.
Everything else except starting pitching can be mediocre if you can hit RISP. The Red Sox have been great when they could and awful when they couldn’t. It was probably obvious, but it had to be said.
The Red Sox have never hit like a good road team. They are very comfortable hitting the wall and the corners of Fenway Park, but they lose their confidence on the road. That would have been good enough in a rebuilding year, but now we think they are contenders.
Contenders do not always play from behind or wait for two strikes to start swinging. Contenders do not depend on big swings to produce runs. Contenders are not predictable.
At home the Sox score early and they take what the pitchers give them at the plate. On the road they wait and watch and take third strikes. There is no excuse for taking a third strike except for the occasional breaking ball that leaves you flat-footed. Facing the Royals the Sox kept holding back, hoping to get a free pass. Victorino even threw his body into a few pitches, a practice that will soon get him a reputation among umpires.
The hitters that are getting on base, Ellsbury, Gomes, Drew and Ortiz, are taking what they get and putting the ball in play somewhere. The hitters that are watching the strikes go by and then flailing, currently Pedroia, Napoli, Saltalamacchia and Nava, are always hitting behind in the count and then swinging from the heels. Pedroia, of course, always swings from the heels, but when he’s hitting well, he takes the ball to right field.
On the road the Sox don’t play much small ball. The days of powering their runs over the plate are gone, but that doesn’t mean they can’t score by bunting, stealing and moving the runner over. The double plays are killers, and the Sox should be playing to avoid them. The crazy running and sacrificing game the Astros modeled in Houston has its virtues, especially when the home team is not expecting it.
Which brings us to predictability. When the Sox are predictable, they lose. What is predictable about their game? Taking the first pitch, hitting into the defensive alignment, yanking the ball on the ground, pitching into high counts, never pitching out. These tendencies give their opponents an advantage, because they can defend them more easily.
The Beantown boys do all the right things at home, where they feel confident and expect to win. On the road they are much more predictable and defensive, both hitters and pitchers falling behind in the count. You can call it a slump, but contenders break slumps by aggressive and unpredictable play.
The players that demonstrate this kind of aggressive play are Koji Uhehara and Stephen Drew. (Yes, I am through maligning Stephen Drew).
Uhehara throws strikes and never pitches from behind. Of course he only has to do it for one inning, but that’s his job, and he does it with flair.
Drew is a fairly discriminating hitter, but he does not get behind in the count much. He is not waiting for a walk or the ideal pitch to hit. Earlier he was taking third strikes. Not anymore. He is putting the ball in play all the time, and he does it early in the count.
The Road is long and winding, and you have to navigate it with confidence, if you are a contender. Because the Red Sox are truly contenders, they should take the road aggressively and play with confidence, even though when they play on the other guy’s turf.
Pedroia Gives the Royal Wave
Lord Pedroia, you define loyalty and determination. You are a model to the young, who hope to emulate your intensity. You offer every moment on the diamond to the service of almighty baseball. You make me your proud servant.
As your loyal subject, Duke of Fenway, I have a timely message to deliver. Resist the temptation to yank the ball to left and go with it to right field, as you do so well. (While you’re at it, mention this to Mayor Napoli, the Regent of Saltalamachia, and Squire Drew, all of whom will whiff at David Price fastballs, while trying to out-muscle him.)
No doubt I will receive your contemptuous stare for thinking I can give you batting advice. It’s not as if I invented the art of going with the pitch. It’s just that I can see you struggling with pitches, you have smoothly delivered into right field in the past, and I think, “His majesty is striving overly hard. He needs to relax and go with the pitch.”
Notice the stout Lord Ortiz who gently guides the ball into left, when they pitch him away. He knows he can jack it and often he does. He takes what is served and serves it right back. Notice the Earl of Ellsbury who slashes the pitch to left, spinning toward the foul line. He gave up on his long-ball aspirations and raised his average fifty points. The Baron Nava patiently watches the world go by until he takes the two-strike pitch to the opposite field. O.k., maybe the Baron could be less patient.
When I see these pretenders negotiating with the fierce Price or the relentless Moore, I think, “His majesty can negotiate with the best of them. Indeed look at the fine contract he has negotiated with Count Cherrington. He acquitted himself with such dignity to complete a prosperous contract in the midst of the tourney. Surely he can out-fox the sinister Sir Price!”
My lord Pedroia, I implore you. Hold back a modicum as the pitch slips over the outside corner. Swat the delivery into right field and take your modest station at first base. You will vanquish the fearless Price and his minions of the bullpen. You will humiliate them with the might of small ball and win the war of attrition.
I beg your forgiveness for my impudence and wish you Godspeed on Monday.
Your loyal servant,
Now that Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz have been signed to contracts, the Red Sox should consider getting the jump on Steve Boras, Jacoby Ellsbury’s agent. These three players represent the heart of a team that has shifted personnel with abandon in the last three years. If there is a core to the team, they are it.
Ellsbury is a special case, because he has the ruthless Steve Boras as an agent, but ultimately the decision to sign is Ellsbury’s (as far as I know). As I argued in the spring, Ellsbury represents a critical mass of players the Red Sox brought through their farm system and managed to stay with the parent club for more than a cup of coffee. They include Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, John Lester, Clay Bucholz, and Felix Dubront. Maybe Jose Iglesias. For each of those there are two or three talented recruits who were traded and successfully transplanted. Lots of talent leaks out the Red Sox farm system.
Perhaps this idea of retaining the talent from your farm system is archaic, with the significant fire sales before the trading deadlines. There is already talk about the great reserves the Red Sox have to trade for pitching before July 31.
But talent can be squandered, too, and many successful teams have used their farm systems to great advantage, such as Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh. These teams are compelled to develop their own talent for lack of revenue, but they are the look of the future, because they have taken the time to grow their own stars.
Jacoby Ellsbury has reached a place where his speed and timely hitting have made him indispensable. The Red Sox have lacked a good lead-off hitter for most of their existence, and Ellsbury has the potential to be the gold standard in that role. With some mentoring from Shane Victorino and support from those below him in the order, he could bring a consistent threat the Sox need against the top flight pitchers in the AL East.
Ellsbury should seize his opportunity as well. He has a good support system in Boston. The Red Sox have a number of experienced outfielders to keep the pressure off him. Fenway fans are savvy and appreciative of contributions, not just the power and RBI numbers. You need that appreciation when you bat first in the order.
So let’s get this contract done. Take Steve Boras out of the loop and give Ellsbury the security he needs at this stage of his career. If there’s a chance to build this team with solid, homegrown talent, let’s seize it. Ellsbury forever!
The Red Sox beat the Rays at their own game Tuesday night, hitting doubles, stealing bases, and hustling the defense into making errors. But they were lucky, too. Gomes hit a grounder just beyond the reach of Longoria, and Iglesias’s chopper bounced barely over the third baseman’s head in the ninth. So let’s not get too cocky.
What the Red Sox could learn from Tuesday night is how Wil Myers and Evan Longoria scored the only two runs the Rays managed in a 6-2 loss. They launched the first pitch from John Lester. He was making first-pitch strikes, and they weren’t about to waste a swing at them. Meanwhile every Sox hitter was giving away the first strike, because the Sox are patient. They have the highest number of pitches per plate appearance in Major League baseball, as Jerry Remy was at pains to point out.
Now patience is considered a prime virtue in Red Sox hitters, and they have produced a lot of runs with patience. But Joe Madden, the Tampa Rays manager, also knows that a pitcher who is trying to get ahead of batters will tend to center his first pitch, so his hitters often go up looking for that first one. This way they get a cut at the most hittable pitch in the sequence. Wil Myers took this approach every time he came to the plate, and he whacked the ball hard on three consecutive pitches, the first for a homer, the second for a double, and the third for a solid line out.
What’s good for the Rays is good for the Sox. The Rays’ pitchers will try to get ahead of every Sox hitter, and that first pitch may be the best one to hit in the sequence. At some point, you should not let them get away with a first strike. In the seventh and eighth innings Tuesday night Napoli and Saltalamachia and Drew went up whaling, and they hit the ball solidly. Really they could have done the same earlier in the game, and there might have been more base runners.
And the same for Pedroia and Ortiz, who are the souls of patience. Often their opponents will pitch around them, and there is nothing to do but take the walk. But if they dare to throw a first-pitch strike, Pedey and Papi should make them pay. This will be most important against the best teams, like Tampa Bay and Baltimore and Oakland and Texas. They will assume the Red Sox will take the first pitch and use that to their advantage.
So a good way to get on top of these teams is to get aggressive. Look for the first pitch strike, but don’t watch it. Take a rip. Not enough to be predictable, to allow the pitcher to take advantage of your aggressiveness, but to surprise them and make them shy about getting ahead on the first pitch. It’s the art of aggressiveness, the art of keeping them off balance. It’s what Madden does so well with his team, and it’s how to beat them.
Five years from now, baseball savants will be talking about Dustin Pedroia the way they honor Derek Jeter today. It is not just about hitting or fielding or hustling on the bases, Pedroia plays with the passion and savvy you can’t learn. He is a role model for the Red Sox.
Pitchers talk about “staying within” themselves, because concentration matters when you pitch, but Pedroia is “within himself” for an entire season. This is a rare gift in a sport that carries over 162 games and then the post-season. He performed that way when he made a brilliant play at second base in the seventh inning against Oakland on Friday night and then drove in both winning runs with a timely single in the eighth. Big Papi then struck out.
Without Pedroia the game goes to Oakland or, at best, into extra innings where the bullpen would be exhausted trying to match 0’s with the A’s. This is the kind of game in which the A’s have always showed their dominance of the Red Sox–low-scoring with attrition of the bullpen. The difference on Friday night was Pedroia. O.K., the bullpen did their job, too.
The bards of baseball would praise Jeter in this manner in his healthy days, and he deserved it. He led the Yankees by example in every dimension of the game. He didn’t moan or make excuses when he wasn’t up to the task. He just did his job as if he was trying to make the team. If the Yankees miss any of their wounded brothers this year, it is Jeter. He is their pacesetter, and no one can take his place.
Pedroia has been that pacesetter for the Red Sox in good times and bad. He has better and spirited comrades this year, but he was the same Pedroia in 2012. If Pedroia is healthy, it is hard to imagine the Red Sox not going deep into the post-season. If he is not, he will make more noise on the bench than anyone else, because he is always into the game and always swinging from the heels, whether he is at the plate or not.
Everyone in Boston knows this. They notice when he has a critical role in a victory, but they know he is critical in every game. Pedroia–the pacesetter.
[I know I called Ellsbury “the pacesetter” previously. I think he needs a better name.]