PITTSBURGH — The doubting of Dustin Pedroia took a respite after he won Rookie of the Year, American League MVP, three Gold Gloves, and two World Series championships.
Now it’s back.
His critics now have ammunition: four years of OPS slippage (.861, .797, .787, .712), three hand/thumb/finger problems that make him injury-prone, and a big contract that some think he is not living up to.
They still can’t get him on his fielding; a fourth Gold Glove may be on the way.
But the talk has begun. He’ll never be that good again. It’s all downhill from here.
Pedroia, 31, has heard the talk and chooses not to respond to it, but don’t think he won’t feed off it. He feels no need to defend himself, because if he had to, he’d have to bring up two hand surgeries and he doesn’t want to ever use that as an excuse.
In a way, he has always used the doubts as motivation to prove people wrong, even though he won’t say it. His size was always an issue. It’s why he was drafted in the second round out of Arizona State rather than the first.
When he struggled with the Red Sox as a September call-up in 2006 and then in April of 2007, the naysayers were out in full force. Then he turned it all around in May and went on to be Rookie of the Year.
But the doubts didn’t stop then.
I can remember being in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Hall of Fame induction in 2008, the year Pedroia won MVP. Hall of Famer George Brett commented that Pedroia swung too hard for a little guy and needed to take more of a little man’s approach — cut down his swing and hit the ball on the ground more.
Brett eventually admitted he was wrong. Because Pedroia proved him wrong.
And so here we are again.
In a text exchange with Pedroia (proof he’s doing better after hand surgery), he felt no need to defend himself.
“I play to win and play for my teammates,” he wrote. “And believe me when I say this, my best days haven’t started. Just watch.”
We will watch to see if he can live up to his eight-year, $110 million contract. We’ll see whether people have predicted his demise accurately.
There have been plenty of e-mails from fans calling for Pedroia to be traded and Mookie Betts to become the second baseman. Sure, why not? We’ve seen so much of Betts at second base that we’re ready to make that call, right?
Forget the great defense, being the heart and soul of the team, the leadership, the example he sets by playing hurt.
Apparently that stuff doesn’t matter anymore. That darned OPS has deteriorated.
Pedroia isn’t angry about that. It’s fact. He won’t dispute it. He wishes he could have done better. But what is he most upset about?
“I hate watching other teams celebrate,” he wrote. “That’s what I’m pissed off about.”
Why did his offensive game go down this season?
Here’s the way it was described to me. Because Pedroia was playing with one hand by midseason, his swing was slow. To compensate for that, he had to start his swing sooner.
Teams eventually realized that, so they fed him a steady diet of off-speed stuff or curveballs. He was susceptible to being out in front and would often swing at pitches in the dirt or outside the strike zone.
It was uncharacteristic of Pedroia, and resulted in a considerable drop from the .326/17/83/.869 line of his MVP season.
“He feeds off people doubting him,” said teammate David Ross. “He’ll be back like the old Pedroia next year. He’s got a lot of baseball left in him. He just has to get 100 percent with the hand.
“The thing about him is he never said word one about it, but everyone knew he was hurting. To go out there like he did and know he wasn’t going to be his best tells you everything you need to know about him.
“He’s one of a few guys in this game who every day you learn something from him. If he didn’t get a hit that day, he’d do something defensively to help you win. Or he’d point something out that would give one of our teammates an edge.
“He sees the game like very few people do. That’s why the intangible things he brings can’t be measured in the stat sheet.”
Those who know him say Pedroia’s goals include hitting 20 homers again and knocking in 100 runs for the first time.
He probably doesn’t help his ability to stay healthy by the way he plays. He continues to slide headfirst, exposing his hands to injury. He dives to make stops at second base. Ever seen anyone hustle to first base on a routine ground ball more than Pedroia?
Should he stop doing those things to preserve his health?
While some say it would be smart to pick his spots for diving, sliding headfirst, etc., that’s not who he is. He has one gear — and that’s 100 m.p.h. all the time. Some believe he’ll wear down because of that, but Pedroia isn’t willing to accept that.
“Because he’s been banged up, I don’t think we’ve seen everything he’s capable of doing on the field,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “Despite that, he’s still been a very valuable player, including this year.
“These injuries he’s had are not — based on the information I have, anyway — are not chronic or lasting. They’re things he’ll recover from.
“If I was going to bet on one player in Major League Baseball, he’d certainly be in a very small group of guys I’d bet on.”
A Red Sox official said, “He’s going to use all of the stuff said against him to work himself into having one big chip on his shoulder. And when he does that, that’s good for us.
“He’s one of the proudest guys I’ve ever been around. If someone says he’s slipping or he’s not the player he once was, that’s fuel for him.
“You watch, he’s going to have the best year of his career when he comes back next season if the hand has healed properly.”
Doubt it? Go ahead. Pedroia is dying to make you look foolish.