NEW YORK — Dustin Pedroia has a message for those who believe he is in steady, irreversible decline.
“I’ll be the same player that I am — the same player that you’ve seen — until I’m dead, OK?’’ Pedroia said while sitting in front of his locker before Friday’s Red Sox-Yankees series opener at Yankee Stadium. “That’s basically the bottom line.’’
He has spent his entire professional career being cocky and defiant. That’s the way it goes when you are 5-foot-nothing and clubhouse security guys won’t let you into the room because they don’t believe you’re a big leaguer. So now that his offensive numbers are sliding, now that he is 30, there is speculation that Dustin Pedroia might never again be the same player.
“Not true,’’ Pedroia said calmly. “I haven’t even hit my peak yet. Everybody has their own opinions. I haven’t even gotten started yet.’’
When he was American League MVP in 2008, Pedroia batted .326 with 17 homers, 83 RBIs, 54 doubles, and 213 hits. But his slugging percentage has gotten lower in each of the last four seasons and he went into Friday’s game hitting .265 with an on-base percentage of .338.
“I haven’t got hot yet,’’ he explained. “That’s basically it.
“You look back at every game, there’s one pitch that doesn’t go your way sometime. That’s frustrating. But when the hot streak comes, it maintains.
“Obviously, I get down on myself. I know that when the hot streak comes I’ll be right back at where I am.’’
Challenging Pedroia on anything is a fool’s errand. He is still one of the Sox’ best players and is hardly the cause of the team’s woeful underachievement.
Still, Pedroia has been part of the problem, and while it’s easy to bash pinatas like Stephen Drew, Grady Sizemore, Jackie Bradley Jr., Daniel Nava, and A.J. Pierzynski, Pedroia is no longer above criticism.
He plays hard every day. No one can doubt his team-first attitude or his willingness to play hurt. But it’s fair to ask him if we have seen his best.
He is in the first year of an eight-year, $110 million contract extension and his OBP is at a career low, while he is hitting only .206 with runners in scoring position. His OPS puts him 11th among big league second basemen. He is usually somewhere in the top four.
Pressed to explain his declining numbers, Pedroia said, “In 2012, I played 141 games and hit 15 homers with 39 doubles and I tore a muscle in my top hand. Last year, I hit nine homers with 84 RBIs and 30-something doubles [actually 42] with a bottom-hand UCL torn.
“I got that fixed. I’m getting healthy. I’ve had 300 at-bats, not obviously to where I like, but there’s no decline by any means. There’s going to be a hot streak, and when it comes I’ll be back to where I am.’’
Sometimes it looks as though he is still injured. Would he tell us if he were playing through pain now?
“No, unless you’re a doctor or a physical therapist,’’ he answered with a chuckle. “I’m OK. I’m fine. They’re pitching me tough. Pitching’s better now than when I first got in the league. Everybody in the bullpen throws 100 miles an hour.
“It’s only a matter of time. Obviously when you don’t win and you don’t swing the bats well as a team, I put that on me. David [Ortiz] does, too.
“But if you hit the ball at somebody and you don’t get a hit, if you have 300 at-bats, that’s 10 hits. Have I lined out 10 times this year? I’ve lined out a lot more than 10 times. So any of those fall, I’m not hitting .265, I’m hitting .295 and everyone thinks I’m the greatest player ever.
“It all evens out over 162. It doesn’t even out over 78.
“I’ve hit the ball fine. Right at people, man. I had three replay home runs that weren’t. That’s seven [instead of four homers]. People don’t know that. They just look at the overall numbers and say, ‘This guy stinks.’ Well, the reality is, the storm’s coming.’’
Meanwhile, commentators and fans are wondering.
“I don’t really care,’’ Pedroia said. “I don’t have any feelings . . . My main focus is to help us win the World Series.
“I’ve been around here long enough to know that that stuff doesn’t bother me.
“It changes. It can change overnight. I’ve had games where I go 5 for 5 with three homers. If I do that, I’m slugging .420 right now and you can’t write this article. So if that happens tonight, you’re going to be a mess.’’
Pedroia went 0 for 4 in Friday’s 6-0 rollover loss to the immortal Vidal Nuno and is now batting .262.
The Red Sox are a mess.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.