Instead of being the typical sports talk show caller in my hometown of Boston, who, at this point literally has to dig for issues to whine about concerning the Red Sox, I think it would be wise to just enjoy this unbelievable run they are on and look at any negatives in full context – the fact that most of the struggling players, however few of them there are right now, are new to Boston, for instance. But focusing on the sub-par play of a few players (Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew) takes away from the fact that the Red Sox have an 11½ game lead over their arch rival, the Yankees. No other first place team has such a big lead over their division opponents. And they are in the top 3 or 5 in many hitting and pitching categories in the American League.
To get this big lead, the Sox have many players playing at or well above expectations. Perhaps none more than Hideki Okajima, on the pitching side. With his ERA still around 1.00 this far into the season, he may just be the most dominant setup man you (and closer Jonathan Papelbon) could ask for.
As for the hitters, the only rookie among the starting nine has exceeded all expectations, and done so rather quickly, considering his slow start. Of course, I’m talking about second baseman Dustin Pedroia.
Remember when the Sox had little talent in their farm system? I sure do. How fast times change. Just in the last two years or so, we have seen the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester — the southpaw who got off to an impressive start before coming down with Lymphoma last year and is now cured and almost ready to make his much anticipated comeback to the Sox rotation — and now Pedroia.
Sure, Pedroia got off to a slow start, which made some impatient fans cry for Alex Cora to play more, but that wasn’t unexpected. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect from him other than good, solid defense. To this point, he’s only made two errors on the year. By contrast, his predecessor Mark Loretta made only four last year, but he was a veteran and a solid one at that.
Though he got some at bats late in 2006, Pedroia is still a rookie, and a confident one at that. And why not? Looking at his college and short minor league career, I would be too if I was named Defensive Player of the year in 2003 at Arizona State, co-player of that same year in the PAC-10, and had a whopping .466 OBP in three years at ASU!
Last year at Pawtucket, he was an all-star who ranked 4th in the International League in batting average, and was 3rd in OBP. But what Pedroia may take the most pride in is that he became the first of the 2004 Sox draft picks to reach the majors in late August.
Pedroia, like Kevin Youkilis, had one hell of a May and is now batting well over .300, has more hits than J.D. Drew(!), and has an astounding OBP of .394. With those numbers and sound defensive play, Pedroia could be turning into the next Youkilis. But with only one-third of the season completed, it’s too early to tell whether that comparison will hold up. Besides, Pedroia has yet to hit that “rookie wall.”
Additionally, one must remember that the circumstances around Pedroia’s rise are far different than the considerably longer journey it took Youkilis to get his chance to play full-time, which was three years (2004-2006). The Sox had Bill Mueller at third base and Kevin Millar/Doug Mientkiewicz at first base when Youk, who came up as a third baseman, was a rookie in ’04. In 2005, GM Theo Epstein brought in John Olerud to join Millar at first base for the playoff run. Youk, meanwhile, was sent down to Pawtucket four times that season.
In short, there just wasn’t room for Youk to play full-time at any time until 2006, when the first base job opened up after Millar wasn’t re-signed and Olerud retired; Pedroia, meanwhile, had the second base job waiting for him this year (Alex Cora, a true class act, never complained and knows he has multiple roles with the Sox to fulfill).
Another key difference: While Youk is considered a late bloomer, Pedroia is only 23 years old, so there’s no guarantee that he will get 400 at bats this year. If he does struggle, he may warm the bench for a while, but definitely won’t be sent down to the minors multiple times either, unless Theo decides that a combined Pedroia/Cora performance is so inadequate that he needs to sign or trade for a veteran at the fast-approaching July trading deadline.
So, in all, while there may be differences between Pedroia and Youkilis in terms of how they got here, in all, they are both at the top of their game right now and tearing up American League pitching. The right side of the Red Sox infield is looking more promising and stable than it has in a long, long time.
As for the aforementioned J.D. Drew, his HR numbers and batting average may be way down, but in what is widely considered one of the toughest right fields to play in MLB at Fenway, Drew has been very good at handling it in his first two months on the job (his 3 errors aside). And Drew has had an OBP above or just below .350 for much of the year, which is what the Theo Epsteins of the world will tell you is just as important, if not more so, than batting average when it comes to helping a team win.
Even though he’s 0-10 in six games against the Yankees so far this season (going into the weekend series at Fenway), J.D. Drew has been in the middle of some of the most memorable late-inning rallies of the season, including the so-called “Mother’s Day Miracle” vs. the Orioles. Yes, he hasn’t done it with his bat but knows the strike zone better than most and is currently 2nd on the Sox in walks.
So the question is, at age 31, are we going to see the power numbers improve as the season goes along — assuming he stays healthy, of course — or are his hitting skills now declining to the point where he will be about as productive as Mark Bellhorn was in 2004? Which is to say good, but not great. Drew walks like Bellhorn, strikes out often like Bellhorn, but also gets on base like Bellhorn.
The problem is, unlike Mark, J.D. is getting paid eight-figure dollars to protect Manny and succeed the ultimate dirt dog Trot Nixon. If he can get to 70 RBIs, that would be quite an accomplishment at this point, having only driven in 17 in April and May combined.
With Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek batting behind him and playing much better than expected, and Manny starting to heat up, Drew needs to rack up the hits and have a strong June and July to make this lineup peak and prove that he can be the number five hitter Theo envisioned and signed him to be.