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Dustin Pedroia is poised for a comeback

The diminutive Red Sox second basemen had a lackluster 2014 and an abridged 2015, but 2016 is set up to be a return to form.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Dustin Pedroia just finished his tenth year in the majors, his ninth full season, and it wasn't great. He's an important player to the Red Sox, both on the surface and as a "leader in the clubhouse" (if you believe in that sort of thing), and his performance in 2016 will likely dictate a substantial portion of the Red Sox's success. Pedroia also faces something of a turning point in his career; at 32, he's past his prime, and he's coming off a string of injuries over the last few seasons. How this next year goes will likely indicate whether he continues on a possible Hall of Fame trajectory or sees his value dry up.

Pedroia's 2015 sent some mixed signals for his future. By Baseball Prospectus's WARP, it was his worst season since 2010; by FanGraphs' fWAR, his worst since his debut year of 2006. His 425 PAs were his fewest since 2010, his playing time limited by a hamstring strain, but even adjusted for playing time, Pedroia's WARP/600 was his third-worst of any non-2006 year, and his fWAR/600 was his worst of any 2006-included year.

In many ways, however, 2015 represented a rebound from a disappointing 2014. A set of wrist and hand injuries had seemed to sap his power, leading to a career-low .098 ISO that bounced back up to a robust .150 in 2015. FanGraphs put his wRC+ at 98 in 2014, almost precisely league average, and 116 in 2015, sixth-best among second basemen with at least 400 PAs. But Baseball Prospectus's measure of offensive production, True Average, put Pedroia at slightly above-average in both 2014 and 2015, at .268 and .271. Figuring out his career's trajectory presents a real challenge.

First, while it might be tempting to write off his past injury troubles and pencil Pedroia in for 650 PAs, time on the DL probably has to be assumed at this point in his career. Alex Speier of the Boston Globe recently documented the history of injuries to second basemen, and this Rob Arthur post from 2013 shows that second base is one of the positions that sees the risk of injury rise most sharply as players age. So despite having his share of injuries that seem fluke-y – his 2014 wrist injury came from a runner's slide into second, his hand injuries from his own slides – the nature of second base (and the fashion in which Pedroia plays it) will keep him at risk of such injuries until he retires. The depth charts at both BP and FanGraphs project him for 602 PAs in 2016; frankly, that strikes me as optimistic, especially after the Red Sox have discussed giving Pedroia more routine rest days. Playing time is one of the most difficult areas for a projection system to predict, but for whatever it's worth, both ZiPS (532) and Steamer (557) agree.

Assuming Pedroia does play less, either because of injuries or deliberate days off, the questions remains how he'll perform when he is on the field. The various projection systems are in rough agreement about his offense. PECOTA has Pedroia at a .354 OBP, a .130 ISO, and a TAv of .274, all about .010 below his career averages. That's still good enough for the third-best offensive projection among second basemen, behind only Robinson Cano and Ben Zobrist. Steamer projects a similar OBP and ISO of .347 and .128, respectively, and a wRC+ of 105 (pretty similar to a .275 TAv), but slips Daniel Murphy, Jose Altuve, and Neil Walker in front of him, along with Cano and Zobrist. ZiPS is the least optimistic, pegging him at a .339 OBP and a .119 ISO, good for a roughly league-average .322 wOBA. It adds Devon Travis, Jason Kipnis, and Brian Dozier to the list of second basemen projected to perform better.

That said, there are reasons to think the projections might be underestimating Pedroia. ZiPS thinking Devon Travis will outhit him illustrates why – most projection systems aren't particularly good at dealing with injuries. Travis is coming off shoulder surgery; to think he'll come close to replicating his breakout 2015 is probably a bit crazy. Projection systems tend to be black boxes, with their precise inner workings hidden from public view, but as far as I know, most don't distinguish between types of injuries. They'll simply have some injury flag for Travis, while us human observers know that shoulder surgery is the kind of thing that (god forbid) can derail a career.

Pedroia's injuries present a different sort of challenge to the projection systems. He's notorious for trying to push through various ailments –fielding grounders from his knees with a broken foot in 2010, for example, or ignoring a broken ring finger at the end of 2012, or playing all of 2013 with a torn UCL in his thumb. The projection systems mostly see players in two states, healthy enough to play or not, and then spit out guesses as to how a player will perform when in the former. But Pedroia has been in three (overly simplified) states: healthy, not healthy, or not healthy but still playing. The projection systems are therefore projecting him in a mix of the first and third; if he stays healthy all year, or only plays when healthy, they might end up underestimating his performance.

That idea is supported by an in-depth look at Pedroia's 2015, using data from Brooks Baseball. Here's a plot of his SLG on contact broken down by zone from 2010 through 2013, over which period he had a 122 wRC+:

Pedroia's bread-and-butter was pretty obviously balls on the inside half of the plate. In 2014, battling the wrist injury, his ability to turn on pitches off the inside corner of the plate disappeared:

2015, however, saw a return to form, albeit in limited time:

That band of purple-red off the inside corner of the plate is a great sign for Pedroia's future. When he was at the plate in 2015, pitchers weren't able to challenge him in the way they were in 2014. Unsurprisingly, Pedroia saw a higher rate of pitches in the zone in 2014 – 51.8%, up from 48.2% in 2010–13 – which dropped back down to 50.1% in 2015. This was in an injury-shortened season, but it was an indication of real recovery from the wrist injury, the most concrete reason to be optimistic about his offensive potential in 2016. The projection systems likely consider his offensive performance in 2014 just as indicative as his 2015 of how he'll do when on the field, but 2014 was an injury-caused aberration by all appearances. In other words, their projections of Pedroia as merely a top-five or top-ten second baseman are probably conservative.

Finally, a big part of Pedroia's value as he's aged has been in his glove. He's a four-time Gold Glove-winner, and he's been extremely valuable as measured by modern defensive metrics. From 2011 to 2014 Pedroia averaged about 16.5 defensive runs per year as measured by FanGraphs, good for fourth leaguewide (behind only JJ Hardy, Andrelton Simmons [who didn't play in 2011, lol], and Yadier Molina). Last year, however, his defensive value plummeted to 3.4 runs, his lowest figure since his first full season in 2007.

Defensive metrics being what they are, a single year's estimate of Pedroia's defensive ability is only worth so much. That said, a good defensive season from Pedroia could make reduced offensive production bearable, or classic offensive production part of an All-Star season. Predicting defense is notoriously difficult; the projection systems think Pedroia will bounce back substantially, up to 10.2 runs (Steamer), or somewhat, to 7.0 runs (ZiPS). Especially if you think he'll be better rested this year, and less dinged-up when he is playing, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think his 2016 will resemble 2011–14 more than 2015.

All this is speculative, but that leaves us with a Pedroia playing less often, perhaps more via scheduled rest than time on the disabled list, and with the potential to hit and field in classic Pedroia fashion. It's easy to forget that he's just 32, only the beginning of most players' decline phases, and while he's taken more than his fair share of bumps and bruises, there's no reason to think he'll fall off a cliff anytime soon. 2015 was a disappointment in many ways, to be sure; it was also a 2.5 fWAR/1.9 WARP season in only 425 PAs. Pedroia's been excellent for virtually every year of the last almost-decade; even without the rebound that seems very plausible, he has a long way to go before he's not one of the best second basemen in the league.

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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.