(Mis)Appreciating Pedroia

August 16, 2011
 
People misappreciate Dustin Pedroia.
 
Misappreciate…okay; maybe I’m making that word up. Checking the Oxford English Dictionary:
 
misappreciate, (adj.):To show appreciation for someone or something, for qualities or attributes that are secondary to how that person or thing should be appreciated; to love something wrongly.
 
Misappreciation is rare in baseball: we have a rich history of under-appreciating players (Arky Vaughn, Ron Santo, Darrell Evans, Reggie Smith, Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines, Gene Tenace), and an equally rich history of overrating players (Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Ryan Howard). But it is rare for a player to get the right amount of attention, for the wrong reasons.
 
Certainly, Dustin Pedroia is appreciated: he gets lots of attention from the press, from fans, and from the folks who give out fancy trophies. He’s won a Rookie-of-the-Year and an MVP award and a Gold Glove. He’s famous for the ‘laser show’ stuff, and he’s famous for having one of the most dramatic swings in the game. He’s famous for being short: it is impossible to watch a Red Sox game without hearing a visiting announcer make casual references to Pedroia’s stature.
 
What is lost in all of this is that Dustin Pedroia - short, cocky, and bedecked with trophies - is also staggeringly good at playing baseball.
 
Old-Timers
 
How good is Pedroia? Let’s compare him against the best second basemen ever. At this point in his career, who is he ahead of and who is he behind? We’ll use baseball-reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, and we’ll look at the five years between age twenty-three and twenty-seven. How does Pedroia compare to the best second basemen of all-time?
 
Starting with some old-timers; guys you probably don’t remember watching:
 
Age
Collins
Hornsby
Lajoie
Pedroia
Gehringer
23
9.4
6.5
4.3
4.3
0.7
24
7.3
9.4
4.5
5.2
4.3
25
9.2
11.7
4.7
4.9
4.4
26
10.4
10.7
9.4
3.7
6.0
27
11.3
6.5
5.3
6.2
6.4
Tot.
47.6
44.8
28.2
24.3
21.8
 
Over his five-year stretch, Eddie Collins hit .344, with a staggering .435 on-base percentage and 295 stolen bases. Hornsby hit .376…that’s three-seven-six…over his five years, winning a Triple Crown and four consecutive batting titles.
 
Pedroia has been very good, but he hasn’t been that good. However, he’s quite comparable to Nap Lajoie, a man who hit a paltry .367 in the early years of the modern game. And Dustin is ahead of Mechanical Man Charlie Gehringer, who hit .319 during his first five full seasons with the Tigers.
 
Disco Divas
 
There’s a twenty year gap between Gehringer (retired in 1942) and the oldest player in the next flock of great second baseman (Joe Morgan, whose career started in 1963).
 
The obvious bridge between the two groups is Jackie Robinson, who didn’t reach the majors until he was twenty-eight years old. Jackie started too late to be entered onto our tables, but it’s worth noting that Robinson had a five-year period between 1949 and 1953 during which he tallied a WAR of 43.6. He was thirty years old at the start of that stretch…the mind boggles to think what he would’ve done if he had reached the majors at twenty-three.  
 
Going to the next group:
 
Age
Grich
Pedroia
Carew
Sandberg
Whittaker
Morgan
23
5.8
4.3
5.1
2.7
1.5
5.1
24
7.3
5.2
2.2
8.5
3.3
0.2
25
6.7
4.9
2.3
5.1
5.1
4.2
26
6.7
3.7
4.4
3.0
6.5
3.4
27
5.5
6.2
6.9
1.3
3.9
5.2
Tot.
32
24.3
20.9
20.6
20.3
18.1
 
These five players stretch out over a long period of time...Joe Morgan was a rookie in 1963; Sandberg retired (for the second time) in 1997.
 
I was surprised at how poorly Joe Morgan does…these ages take us through 1971, which is the year before Morgan turned into a superstar. From 1972-1976, Morgan tallied an astonishing 51.0 Wins Above Replacement, or about ten wins per season, on par with the best five-year stretches of Mays (51.4, 1961-1965) and Ted Williams (53.3, 1941-1948).
 
I’m surprised, too, that Bobby Grich does so well. Grich is a supremely underrated player; one of those guys who’s low batting average and lack of a signature skill glossed over the fact that he did just about everything well.
 
Grich, Ages 23-27, tallied more Wins Above Replacement than five of the seven Hall-of-Fame second basemen we’ve looked at so far. He’s not in the Hall-of-Fame: it is my opinion that he and Lou Whittaker are both very qualified to be there.
 
Bobby Grich joins Hornsby and Collins as the three players decidedly ahead of Pedroia at age twenty-seven.
 
The Recently Retired
 
Age
Pedroia
Alomar
Biggio
Kent
23
4.3
3.7
3.4
1.5
24
5.2
6.4
2.1
0.3
25
4.9
6.1
4.2
3
26
3.7
1.8
3.8
3
27
6.2
2.1
3.7
2.1
Tot.
24.3
20.1
17.2
9.9
 
Pedroia is ahead of (recent) Hall-of-Famer Alomar, (future) Hall-of-Famer Biggio, and Cooperstown candidate Jeff Kent.
 
This is an aside: it is not rare for great second baseman to have ‘late’ peaks. Joe Morgan peaked at age 28-33, which is a little later than you’d expect. Chase Utley was twenty-six when he had his first big season. Jackie Robinson’s peak seasons were his early thirties, though we can’t know how much of that was circumstance and how much was ability. Sandberg was an MVP in 1984, and then he took a few steps back before cementing his spot in the Hall with four great seasons between 1989-1992. Kent, of course, is on the far end of that spectrum: he was into his thirties when he started playing at an All-Star level of ability.
 
The Active Players
 
The hardest group to judge: it’s difficult to say whether or not these players will be part of the discussion of the best second basemen to play the position, or if injuries or age or a hard slide into second will keep them from the discussion. But:
 
Age
Pedroia
Cano
Utley
Kinsler
23
4.3
4.1
--
--
24
5.2
5.6
0.2
1.7
25
4.9
1.2
1.5
3.8
26
3.7
5.1
6.2
5.3
27
6.2
6.3
5.7
5.2
Tot.
24.3
22.3
13.6
16.0
 
Utley and Kinsler didn’t reach the majors until they were a year older than Cano and Pedroia…even if we started this table at Age-24, the order would be the same. According to Wins Above Replacement, Pedroia is ahead of his peers.
 
A Brief Aside
 
I love the subject of ‘Greatest (Insert Position) of All-Time. When I was a kid, I collected magazines that did articles on Dream Teams, or All-Time All-Stars. I used to fill notebooks with my own all-time teams, and my second teams, and third teams. This was before the internet: I was a strange kid.
 
Anyway…we have a pretty good consensus on who the Greatest Players of All-Times are:
 
Pos.
Consensus Pick
Contrarian Pick
Current Challenger
C
Bench
Berra
none
1B
Gehrig
Foxx
Pujols
2B
Morgan
Collins
??
3B
Schmidt
Mathews
A-Rod
SS
Wagner
n/a
none
LF
Williams
Bonds
none
CF
Mays
Cobb/Mantle
none
RF
Ruth
n/a
none
 
I think that’s about right…I think most people agree on Ruth, Schmidt, and Wagner. Gehrig…I think most people recognize that Gehrig was a hair better than Foxx. Some people like to put Musial at first...that’s a debate for another time.
 
There are a few lively debates: Bench or Berra? Morgan or Collins? Barry or Ted? You can throw in whomever you’d like.
 
And…we have challengers to a few of the spots. First-and-foremost is Albert Pujols….Pujols might have already passed the challenge: he might be past Gehrig now, and is just waiting for us to realize it. A-Rod is waiting for his playing time at third to roll past his games at shortstop, so he can leave the Wagner comparable (which he was never going to win) and give Schmidt a challenge.
 
I don’t think we have a strong challenger at catcher, not with Mauer injured. McCann is a helluva player, but it’s a long way from helluva player to Greatest of All-Time. No one is making anyone sweat in the outfield.
 
Morgan and Collins are at second base….just my sense of thing, but doesn’t it seem like second base is the most likely position to see some challengers in the coming years?

Think about it for a second: Collins and Morgan came of age in a time of lowered offense, a time when speed and on-base skills and defense had greater importance. So did Hornsby and Lajoie. Very few of the great second basemen had big years in high-offense environments…Jackie did, and Alomar and Kent and Biggio.
 
Meanwhile, the big challengers at outfield and first almost all come during high offense eras…the 1940’s and 50’s, the 90’s and ‘00’s. Williams, Musial, Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle, Mays…almost all of them became established as offenses increased.
 
Maybe I’m wrong about that…maybe I’m jumping to a conclusion that is not supportable. Check it out and let me know. But my sense is that it could be true…as offense declines, skills like defense or speed take on greater importance. If runs are scarce, you have to use more avenues to get runs, more tools. This shifts value to the smaller guys: the Morgans and Pedroia’s and Collins’s.
 
Right now, offense is declining in baseball, which will place more importance on speed, and on-base ability, and defense. Just a hunch, but I think the time is right for someone to make a challenge for the title of Greatest Second Basemen of All-Time.
 
The Greatest...Ever?
 
Will it be Dustin Pedroia? Will he challenge for the title of Greatest 2B of All-Time?
 
Pedroia’s early career certainly puts him in the running. I think the only serious candidates for the #1 spot are Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, and Jackie Robinson.
 
Considering them in reverse order: Pedroia is way ahead of Robinson: 24.4 Wins Above Replacement to, well, zero. I’m not holding that against Robinson, of course. And it’s worth noting that Dustin Pedroia, to this point in his career, has never matched Robinson’s peak level. But…Pedroia will almost certainly exceed Robinson in career value.
 
Hornsby is probably the best hitting second baseman of all-time, and it is unlikely that Pedroia will pass Rogers for that title (unlikely, but if I had to bet on someone hitting .400, I’d take Pedroia). Hornsby’s two flaws are a) his lackluster defense, and 2) his relatively quick decline. Hornsby’s last full season came when he was thirty-two years old, after which he paid more attention to managing than to bolstering his status as an all-time great. 
 
I don’t think Pedroia will ever match Hornsby’s hitting, and it’ll be a stretch for Pedroia to equal Robinson’s peak value. But….I would not be surprised to see Pedroia have a longercareer than Hornsby, too.
 
Pedroia is behind Eddie Collins….Collins is a great player, maybe the most overlooked great player in baseball history (him or Tris Speaker or Frank Robinson). But Collins’ career started a century ago, when baseball was a different game. Collins had little power…just 47 career homeruns. He stole a ton of bases, but he was also caught stealing quite often. The records for caught stealing are sporadic for Collins, but it seems evident that he was more aggressive on the base paths than he was efficient. That’s a guess: I could be wrong about that.
 
I’m sure that Eddie Collins could’ve played in today’s game…Collins (and Hornsby) made the transition into the live-ball era without a hitch. But…I don’t know that Collins would dominate today’s game the way that he did in the 1910’s and 1920’s. I’d be willing to listen to argument for a younger player.
 
Which leaves Joe Morgan. Up to this point in his career, Dustin Pedroia has been a better player than Joe Morgan:
 
Age
Pedroia
Morgan
23
4.3
5.1
24
5.2
0.2
25
4.9
4.2
26
3.7
3.4
27
6.2
5.2
Tot.
24.3
18.1
 
But…it’s about to get really tough to keep up:
 
Age
Morgan
Pedroia
28
10.0
??
29
9.9
??
30
9.1
??
31
12.0
??
32
10.0
??
Tot.
51
??
 
Joe Morgan, from 1972-1976, was a perfect baseball player: he led the league in on-base percentage four times, walked 110+ times a year, stole at least 58 bases a year, hit as many as 27 homeruns, rarely struck out, rarely grounded into a double play, won four Gold Gloves, and led his team to the postseason four times, winning two rings. His five year stretch from 1972-1976 is one of the greatest peaks in performance of any player, ever.
 
Could Pedroia match that? Or at least come close?
 
I think he could. Pedroia is posting the best on-base percentage of his career, .400. His slugging percentage is not the best of his career, but that’s because offense has declined since 2008: set against the league rate, Pedroia is showing more power than ever before. There is little evidence to suggest that his statistics are inflated because of some ‘luck’ element.
 
He is having a great year on the bases: he should cross over 30 steals on the season, with an excellent success rate. And he’s playing the best defense of his career. And he’s been red-hot since getting a clean bill on his ankle: since June 1, Pedroia has posted a .366/.441/.602 slash line...he has been the best hitter in baseball.
 
He has a steep climb to pass Joe Morgan, but he could certainly do it. And then maybe people will stop misappreciating Pedroia’s cockiness and short stature, and start appreciating what he could be: the next challenger for the title of ‘Greatest Second Baseman of All-Time.’
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and explanations on why this article should actually be about Robinson Cano, both here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (6 Comments, most recent shown first)

joedimino
Ok, that was strange . . . here's the comment in english:

Rickey Henderson was a misappreciated players as well. He's a Hall of Famer if he never steals a base, yet those steals are really all your average fan remembers him for (on the field anyway).
9:46 AM Sep 22nd
 
joedimino
Rickey%20Henderson%20was%20a%20misappreciated%20player%20as%20well.%20He's%20a%20Hall%20of%20Famer%2​0if%20he%20never%20steals%20a%20base,%20but%20that's%20really%20all%20your%20average%20fan%20remembe​rs%20him%20for%20(on%20the%20field%20anyway).​
9:44 AM Sep 22nd
 
Kev
If you have Cobb/Mantle, you need to include Ruth/Aaron.
And Campy had 3 MVP's and the best caught-stealing %
(1. Campanella, 2. Bench, 3. Berra) of all time.
12:30 PM Aug 24th
 
3for3
Tango, I think you have it backwards. If Dustin only gets 17 WAR the next 5 years, he will have likely fallen out of the race for best 2d baseman ever. Chase got started a tad late and hasn't been as durable as needed.
8:50 PM Aug 16th
 
champ
Great article, Dave!

What are the home/road breakdowns for Dustin vs. Cano? They both play in hitters parks...
6:25 PM Aug 16th
 
tangotiger
Utley is 17 WAR ahead, and almost 5 years older. What are the chances that Pedroia is going to get 17 WAR over the next 5 years (and then still be as good as Utley is today)?

I don't know the answer, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's close to 50/50. That means Utley stays in this discussion.​
10:25 AM Aug 16th
 
 
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