We all know Dustin Pedroia as the smack talking, small walking, big swinging, wall ringing second baseman of the Boston Red Sox. We know him as such because, after a tough first month in 2007, Pedroia crushed from May through the World Series, earning Rookie of the Year honors. The next year he didn’t do much, just won the AL MVP award for hitting .326/.376/.493 with 17 homers and the highest MKLD%* in the league.
*Mosquitoes Killed by Line Drive Percentage
Since ’08, Pedroia has settled in as a regular on the Red Sox, hitting, hitting for power, getting on base, and playing excellent defense, both the kind we count (about 10 runs saved per 150 games over the last three seasons) and the kind we can see.
Then came last season. In the midst of a typical Pedroia-type season, DP fouled a ball off of his foot, fracturing it. He came back for two games in mid August, but either re-injured the original injury or was injured again. In any case, a day off of a five-for-five with three homers performance in San Francisco, Pedroia was essentially done for the season. The Beacon’s Marc Normandin and Corey Dawkins, his injury column partner at Baseball Prospectus, could tell you a thousand times more about the ramifications of Pedroia’s injury than I can, so I won’t go there. I bring it up as context for what is to come. One should understand Pedroia spent the off season rehabbing and was not able to do his normal pre-season preparation.
It’s early, but to date Pedroia is hitting an un-laser-show-like .236./.351/.315. He’s walking so he’s not an offensive sinkhole, but he’s not hitting or hitting for power thus far.
Pedroia is swinging and missing at many more pitches this year than in previous seasons. The percentage of times Pedroia makes contact when swinging at a pitch (Fan Graphs calls it Contact%) has fallen from a career average of 90% to 79% this season. He’s not swinging at more pitches than usual (44% this year; 43% career), he’s missing pitches he used to hit. I say that because good number of the pitches Pedroia is missing are strikes. He’s cutting and missing at strikes at twice his career average, 8% this year to 4% for his career.
More: he’s seeing a reduction in total pitches inside the zone compared to his career. Every year of his career up till this one just over fifty percent of the pitches Pedroia has seen were strikes. This year that percentage has fallen to 43%, about 8% off his career average. So, pitchers are throwing more pitches outside the zone, but Pedroia hasn’t adjusted, swinging at the same number he always has. In other words, he’s chasing. The percentage of pitches outside the strike zone Pedroia is swinging at (Fan Graphs calls it O-Swing%) stands at 34% for the season. His career average is 25%. So, in a word, yup.
Pedroia is missing more pitches in the strike zone and he’s swinging at more pitches outside the zone. Here’s an odd thing though: he’s not really missing pitches outside the zone so much, even though he’s swinging at more of them. He’s making contact on pitches outside the zone at an 80% rate (O-Contact%), which is only slightly off his 84% career average (last year he was at 81.4%).
Earlier I said Pedroia is walking so he’s not an offensive sinkhole. Two things. 1) It would have been funnier if I had said he wasn’t an offensive stinkhole. 2) His walk rate is actually up to 14% (again, in a small sample). His career average of 10.6%.
So what does all this jibber-jabber mean? Here’s the theory. I think pitchers are throwing him more pitches outside the zone, many more, than he’s used to seeing. He’s taking some of them (higher walk rate) but he’s not taking all of the ones he should. He’s becoming impatient and expanding the strike zone making it harder to hit his pitch when he sees it, thus fewer line drives, more ground balls, a reduction in power and batting average.
Why is this? It’s hard to say. It could be a function of the types of pitchers the Red Sox have faced so far this year (more junk ballers, for example), it could be the new book on Pedroia, or it could be (and this is likely) just random variation. We are talking, again, about a very small sample compared to Pedroia’s career.
An alternative theory is that his foot is still bothering him in some way and fouling up his hitting mechanics and causing his numbers to look lousy across the board. Pedroia’s hallmark as a hitter has been his incredible plate coverage, and despite missing more pitches in the strike zone, he’s still making some kind of contact with most of the pitches he swings at. That makes me shy away from injury as an explanation. If he were hurt or fouled up because of it, wouldn’t he be missing pitches both in and out of the zone in equal amounts (or at least more out of the zone where it’s harder to make contact)?
To test this theory, I looked at the pitch types Pedroia has seen so far this season. There is danger in forming conclusions from pitch types as Pitch f/x can incorrectly classify pitches, leading to faulty conclusions. However, since I’m not basing my theory on this, I thought I’d just check and see what the numbers say, include it here, and let you the reader, form your own conclusions. Pedroia has seen 5.5% fewer fastballs this year than in his career, and a corresponding increase in change ups and cutters. The other pitches have remained roughly at similar levels. Does that mean anything? Well beyond the fact that it’s easier to throw a fastball for a strike, I have no idea.
Where’s the way out? As I’m not a hitting instructor nor do I play one on television, it’s hard to say. On a macro level (by which I mean, above hitting mechanics) Pedroia has had slow starts before that have had nothing to do with injury (at least as far as we know) so he may just need more at-bats to get himself right. Unless there is some injury that Pedroia is hiding (which wouldn’t be the first time, though his excellent defense is an argument against that theory) we should see the laser show re-emerge from this slump.
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Data from Fangraphs.com and TexasLeaguers.com was used in this article.