By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox lost a sloppy 6-3 affair in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, but there is some good news. For one, they still sit a game ahead of the Yankees for first place in the AL East. Secondly and more importantly, they’ll be welcoming Dustin Pedroia back to the lineup this weekend.
The 34-year-old Pedroia has battled various injuries throughout his entire career, the byproduct of a playing style that isn’t always considerate of the fragilities of the human body. But the knee injury that forced him to undergo knee surgery after last year’s postseason ousting by Houston was seemingly one of the most significant issues he’s had to deal with. He now claims he’s fully healthy and ready to help the Red Sox.
And despite that spot in the standings, the Red Sox could really use it.
For a first-place team, the Red Sox have not gotten any great contributions at all from their second basemen in Pedroia’s absence. Eduardo Nunez has started 40 of 50 games at the position, with Brock Holt (8) and Tzu-Wei Lin (2) starting the other 10 games. Combined, Red Sox second basemen own a .246 average, 17th-best in MLB. Here’s where Red Sox second basemen rank in the majors in some key offensive categories:
AVG: .246, 17th
SLG: .369, 19th
OPS: .642, 21st
HRs 3, T-19th
RBI: 13, T-27th
For as much as complaints about Pedroia’s contributions have risen in the past three years or so, that’s still a period during which Pedroia batted .304 with a .799 OPS, 34 home runs and 178 RBIs in 352 games played.
But for as much focus as the offense gets, Pedroia’s defense has been missed the most. You’d never know it by just looking at the fielding percentage, as Red Sox second basemen have made just two errors, good for a .988 fielding percentage. But it’s in the plays that aren’t made where Pedroia’s absence has been noticeable the most this year. The advanced numbers seem to back up that observation.
Per Fangraphs, Nunez has a negative-6 Defensive Runs Saved rating as well as a UZR/150 of negative-2.9 at second base. As a team, the Red Sox rank 29th in MLB in Defensive Runs Saved (negative-8) and 20th in UZR/150 (negative-2.5) at the second base position.
Even with his knee nagging him the past two years, Pedroia has posted UZR/150 ratings of 9.4 and 9.6 over the past two years. He did account for negative-2 Defensive Runs Saved last year, but when you consider that he was a plus-12 in 2016, it’s fair to surmise the knee was costing him some burst in the field.
Now, though, Pedroia says he’s healthy — for the first time in a long time — and his defensive abilities immediately make the Red Sox a better team. On that, there should be absolutely no doubt.
Offensively, Pedroia’s impact may time some time. He batted just .071 in his five rehab games with Triple-A Pawtucket, working three walks and registering just one hit (a single) in 17 plate appearances. He mentioned that his timing is not yet perfect, but he expressed confidence in the way he was seeing the ball in working some longer at-bats.
But if Pedroia takes a week or so to catch up to speed offensively, he may be able to do so while hitting in the bottom part of the Red Sox lineup. Manager Alex Cora said this week that he’ll be keeping Mookie Betts in the leadoff spot and Andrew Benintendi in the two-hole. Though Hanley Ramirez is struggling mightily (hitting .162 with just two extra-base hits in the month of May) in the No. 3 spot, that wouldn’t be the ideal landing spot for a player who’s essentially coming out of his own spring training in late May.
And with J.D. Martinez batting fourth, Xander Bogaerts batting fifth, and with Rafael Devers perhaps keeping the sixth spot, Pedroia may find himself in the lower-third of the lineup for the first time since … well, since the start of his career back in 2006 and 2007. Generally that’s not a situation that a veteran would find suitable. But Pedroia’s generally managed to attack such situations head-on, whether he’s been asked to bat leadoff, or cleanup, or anywhere in between. Batting sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth for the 2018 Red Sox might be exactly what a player like Pedroia needs to flip that .071 rehab average to a respectable number in the big leagues in a hurry.
Provided he gets back to his normal self, Pedroia will force Cora to make a tough decision or two about the lineup within the next couple of weeks. But given how little the Red Sox have gotten from their second basemen through 50 games of the 2018 season, that’s a problem Cora won’t mind having.