“I’m not in the medical field,” Dustin Pedroia told reporters from the Pawtucket Red Sox dugout on May 17. “I probably could be, but I’m not.”
It’s probably good that he isn’t a doctor. The Red Sox would likely be without World Series Championships in 2007 and 2013 if Pedroia was using his precision to operate on people rather than rocket baseballs around Fenway. His nickname “The Laser Show” might be apt for either profession, but baseball has always been Dustin Pedroia’s true calling.
It’s also probably good that he isn’t a doctor for another, more somber reason. If he was, he might be forced to come to terms with what nearly everyone who closely follows the Red Sox already seems to know: his knee problems will probably prevent him from ever staying fully healthy, that his age will probably preclude him from reclaiming his status as one of the game’s best at his position, and that, heartbreakingly, Dustin Pedroia’s time as Boston’s everyday second baseman is probably up.
(Before I talk more about this, here is a message that feels unnecessary to write, but many Red Sox fans have made necessary anyway. For some reason, there has been a lot of vitriol directed at Dustin Pedroia, with many going as far as to say his injury issues are deserved. I do not understand how anyone could possibly hate a player that has given so much to the city of Boston and to the Red Sox – he’s eleventh in franchise history in games played, tenth in runs, eighth in hits, sixth in doubles, and sixth in stolen bases. So, to you fans, who I’m 99% sure are the same people who signed the petition asking for season eight of Game of Thrones to be remade, get a life.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. Pedroia last put up a healthy, productive season in 2016, but since then, things have taken a sharp downward turn. He played in only 105 games in 2017 thanks to knee issues, and produced a highly mediocre 101 wRC+. In 2018, he played in three games, and so far in 2019, he’s played in only six, putting up a combined -0.5 fWAR in that time. That knee – initially injured on the fateful Manny Machado slide – has never fully healed, and has left Pedroia spending more time talking about how he’s just about back to full strength than actually playing in meaningful games.
Still, it’s not like the Red Sox had a bunch of other options. Last year, the Red Sox somehow won 108 games and a World Series while rolling out a motley crew at second, including Ian Kinsler, Brock Holt, Eduardo Núñez, and a broom with a glove taped to it (which is basically the same thing as Eduardo Núñez). Kinsler is now in San Diego, winning over the hearts of fans by *checks notes* hitting below .200 and flipping everyone off. Holt is a fan favorite coming off of a career year, but realistically profiles as a platoon bench piece, and he hasn’t played since April 5th anyway. And Núñez, while not perfect, is at least consistent (in the sense that every time he comes to bat in a key situation, he swings at the first pitch, which is always outside of the zone, and chops a weak grounder that doesn’t advance the runner). So you can’t really fault the Red Sox for planning on starting a franchise icon at second over that group.
Then, of course, Pedroia got hurt. So did Holt, and so did Núñez, and so did basically every other second baseman the Red Sox had, and all of a sudden, Michael Chavis, the Red Sox top hitting prospect, was making his debut. Since getting called up on April 20th against Tampa Bay, a game in which he hit a crucial, pinch-hit double to help the Red Sox win, the “Ice Horse” has electrified what was a struggling team, with some help from his adorable mother Dorothy.
In just 113 plate appearances, Chavis has firmly staked his claim as a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. He’s hit nine home runs, including four of the Red Sox five longest bombs of the season, driven in 24 RBI, put up a .981 OPS and done everything Alex Cora has asked of him and then some en route to a 152 wRC+. His 91.3 MPH average exit velocity and 43.1% hard-hit rate are both in the upper third of the league, and his 16.9% barrel rate and .408 wOBA are elite. And despite a somewhat troubling 25.9% strikeout rate, most underlying numbers suggest that Chavis’ success isn’t some fluke occurrence.
Notably, Chavis crushes pitches middle-in:
This is awesome, because Chavis has been very good at waiting for that specific pitch. He’s swung at only 29.5% of pitches outside of the zone this year, but what’s more, he’s made sure that when he is swinging at strikes, they’re in his happy zone:
In short, Chavis is capitalizing on his natural pull power (he’s hit 77% of his balls in play to the pull side or to center field). He’s shown above average plate discipline, waited for a middle-in pitch, and crushed it. As long as he continues to display that knowledge of his strengths and the strike zone – which will likely improve as he becomes more accustomed to big league pitching – he’s going to hit a lot of balls very hard. The strikeouts probably need to decrease long term, but you can live with some K’s if it means a 450 foot bomb every few days. Chavis has proven himself to be a capable regular for a team with championship aspirations.
Oh, and he’s done all that while playing 22 of his 26 games at second base.
Pedroia is, supposedly, returning soon, as is Holt. While one roster spot will likely open by demoting a reliever (please, God, please, let it be Tyler Thornburg), the other needs to come from a position player. Let us all come together and pray that this spells the end of Núñez’s tenure with Boston because if I have to watch him flail around and nearly kill himself on very routine plays one more time, I will become a Diamondbacks fan (wait…). It just can’t be Chavis, because he’s been one of the best hitters on the team; he isn’t going to the bench, or back to the minors, and there isn’t really anywhere else to fit him in the lineup. It seems as if Pedroia is going to have to slide into the role of backup. I have no doubt Pedroia will make the most of that situation, but it still is sad to see.
Chavis, for what it’s worth, is saying all of the right things. Like NoHo Hank, the kid is polite – an optometrist by nature. “If (Pedroia) comes back, they’re not going to be like, ‘Chavis, you’re going to play over Pedroia,'” Chavis told Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com. “I don’t see that happening. I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
But with all due respect to Michael Chavis, he should want that to happen, and every Red Sox fan either side of the Mississippi should as well. He gives the team a better chance to win than any other option, regardless of Pedroia’s history and the baggage that might come with him taking a backseat. It’s painful to watch someone with so much heart, who was the team leader for so long, struggle as he has, and I hope against hope that Dustin Pedroia can be an All-Star again. But right now, the Red Sox are desperately trying to claw their way back into the division hunt, and every game, Chavis shows he is more than up to the challenge. The Ice Horse rode into town, and he won’t be leaving anytime soon.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons