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The danger and decline inherent to playing second base

Before offering him an extension, the Red Sox concluded that Dustin Pedroia’s value to the organization was more significant than concerns about the sustainability of production for second basemen. Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File 2015

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The typical second baseman is smaller than many of his peers on the diamond, agile enough to cover ample range up the middle, athletic enough to contort his body to throw to bases from seemingly limitless angles. Often, the second baseman’s offensive profile is built around contact, with low strikeout totals going hand in hand with relatively low power totals.

But there’s an oft-overlooked element of the position: It’s dangerous. Aside from catcher, baseball players argue that no position so regularly exposes its practitioners to harm, particularly while trying to convert the pivot of a double play.

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“I don’t think there’s any question that it’s the second baseman who’s most vulnerable,” said Red Sox infield coach Brian Butterfield. “No doubt.”

In turning two, a second baseman must often follow the lead throw from his right, opening the possibility of getting blindsided by a base runner. Mookie Betts has the scars to prove that risk. The 23-year-old outfielder spent considerable time as an amateur and in the minor leagues playing the middle infield, and his most significant injury occured while playing second base.

“It actually happened in high school. I was playing second. It was kind of a slow ground ball, I was hanging around the base, and the guy came in and flipped me. I’ve still got the spike marks to this day,” said Betts. “There’s more running in the outfield, but as far as physical abuse, the infield has a lot more of it.”

The risks faced by second basemen aren’t unique, of course. Last year, both Ruben Tejada of the Mets and Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates suffered leg fractures while trying to turn double plays from the shortstop position. Their injuries were the impetus for changes to baseball’s rules governing legal slides.

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Yet the fact that Tejada and Kang were injured by what would now be deemed illegal slides may serve to highlight the dangers second basemen face. They will remain in harm’s way even on slides that are legal under baseball’s new rules.

“I think they’re just trying to avoid the play where a runner goes out of his way to get a guy,” said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. “There’s still going to be contact at second base. I think people are thinking it’s going to turn it into a cupcake. It’s not. There’s times when the throw takes you into the runner and you’re going to get smoked.”

That, in turn, creates something of a dilemma. History is full of elite second basemen whose production plummeted in their 30s, if not before. Red Sox analyst Bill James recalled a rush of second basemen in the early 1960s who exploded onto the scene (including Bernie Allen of the Twins and 1965 National League Rookie of the Year Jim Lefebvre of the Dodgers) but were done as productive regulars shortly thereafter. Players such as Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, and Chuck Knoblauch endured precipitous slides from superstar status in their early 30s.

“There have always been more second basemen like that than players at any other position with the possible exception of catcher. And then there’s the other side, second basemen who play forever because they’re able to avoid getting injured while playing second base,” said James. “There is something unique about that position.”

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It’s natural, of course, to connect the dots and conclude that the demands of the position might have something to do with those players’ declines. Pedroia, who has experienced a host of injuries that have impacted his ability to stay on the field as well as his production the last four years, is aware of the possibility of a tradeoff between his approach and the longevity of his production.

One need only recall the 2014 season, in which a wrist injury in early April — caused by a player sliding into second base — robbed Pedroia of his power for the season, to understand the risks of the position. Enough jolts similar to the one Pedroia absorbed could ultimately erode a player’s abilities in drastic fashion — either shortening a career or impacting long-term performance. Yet Pedroia is adamant that he can’t concern himself with self-preservation.

“If I was here just to play for myself and wanted to play 25 years, I wouldn’t hang in there on a double play,” said Pedroia. “But I’m here for my teammates. I’m here to win games. I don’t want to look at the end of my career and say, ‘Oh, man, if I’d have hung in there on double plays, we’d have won two more championships.’ That’s not part of the résumé. Know what I mean?”

Of course, injuries are part of the résumé, and injury risks and projected player aging patterns are part of a team’s calculus when trying to decide what kind of commitment to make to a player. And the Red Sox had to grapple with those issues when they decided on an eight-year, $110 million contract extension for Pedroia during the 2013 season.

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The team concluded that Pedroia’s present and future value to the organization was more significant than any general concerns about the sustainability of production for second basemen.

“We’re mindful of any of those things when we’re dealing with any long-term commitment for any player, regardless of position. I don’t know that we look at second base any differently — or maybe anything more than slightly differently,” said Sox general manager Mike Hazen. “The way [Pedroia] works, the way he prepares himself, gives you confidence that you’re going to get his best every single day.

“When you’re talking about the deal where at the time we were looking to extend him, we felt like he was a cornerstone player for us, somebody we wanted to have here. Every player is going to regress at some point. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll be the first ever. But we felt like the things he brings to the team and city are immeasurable in a lot of ways.”

Even so, the Red Sox wouldn’t have committed a nine-figure guarantee to Pedroia more than a year before he reached free agency if they thought he wasn’t a decent bet to sustain his production. And while there have been some studies (including one in 2005 by Nate Silver, then with Baseball Prospectus) suggesting that second basemen peak and decline earlier than other positions, there’s also evidence that elite second basemen do a better job of avoiding steep drop-offs than players at other positions.

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Though the sample is somewhat small, the 22 second basemen who had a career Wins Above Replacement number of at least 25 through their age-29 season saw their combined offensive WAR drop by 46 percent between the ages of 30-35.

A specific example: Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch had a career WAR of 34.3 between the ages of 21-29; between 30-35, he posted an offensive WAR of 18.5, a 46 percent decrease from his 20s.

The decline of second basemen from ages 30-35 might sound steep, but it’s less drastic than that of other positions. Shortstops featured a startling decline of 64 percent of their offensive value between the ages of 30-35, while third basemen showed the second-largest decline of the group at 59 percent.

Does position matter in elite player againg curves?
A position-by-position comparison of offensive declines for players who produced 25 Offensive Wins Above Replacement through their age 29 seasons relative to their age 30-35 performances
Position Players Average Decline in Offensive WAR, ages 30-35 Aggregate Decline in Offensive WAR, ages 30-35
C 16 48.8% 50.4%
1B 31 53.6% 55.0%
2B 22 39.5% 46.3%
3B 36 60.1% 59.1%
SS 28 64.7% 64.4%
LF 22 56.1% 55.5%
CF 35 51.9% 53.3%
RF 31 52.9% 52.0%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com and Alex Speier

In other words, while there are dangers to playing second base, elite second basemen don’t necessarily drop off in their 30s. Yet even if a player such as Pedroia is at risk of having his peak clipped by the way he approaches his defense, it’s a compromise he’s willing to make.

“It’s kind of like the offensive line. Games are won in football on the offensive line. Games are won in baseball if you turn the double play,” said Pedroia. “That extra out is the difference between winning and losing. People say, ‘It’s a taxing position on the body.’ If you want to win, it is. Trust me, I could take it easy over there, olé some double plays, we’d lose the game and guess what, I’d play another five years. You want me to do that? No. We’re here to win. So you’ve got to hang in there and turn double plays. It’s part of the job.”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.