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Albert Pujols is 6-foot-3 and weighs 230 pounds. One look at his forearms suggests that if he weren’t a baseball player or a lumberjack, he would be wasting a natural gift.
LaDainian Tomlinson is 5-foot-10 and weighs 215 pounds. His body is so powerful and so compact that his true calling has to involve tucking a ball under his arm and marching forward while 11 huge men try to rip the ball away and shove him to the ground.
Shaquille O’Neal is 7-foot-1 and weighs 325 pounds (allegedly). There is perhaps no human body better suited for elbowing defenders out of the way and dunking a basketball through a 10-foot hoop.
So much of athletics, particularly at the professional level, is dependent upon having the right body. Hard work is essential, but power, speed, coordination and agility, the cornerstones of professional sports, tend to be more innate than learned.
How, then, can Dustin Pedroia play baseball at an elite level? Pedroia is listed on his ESPN Player Card at 5-9, 180 pounds. Anyone who has seen Pedroia play may suspect that he was standing on a prone Shaq and holding a few of Pujols’ bats when those measurements were taken.
Pedroia’s in good shape, and even has a bit of a barrel chest, though it’s more like the garbage barrel you keep in your bathroom than one in which bourbon is aged. I’m not sure anyone has ever looked at Pedroia in street clothes and said “you should play second base for the Boston Red Sox.”
But Pedroia does play second base for the Red Sox, and with all respect to Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, he plays it better than any Red Sox ever has.
Pedroia has every skill a baseball player needs. He’s fast (78 career stolen bases in 94 attempts, including a sensational 22-for-26 this season). He has great hand-eye coordination (a .306 career batting average, .310 this year). He’s agile (he’s saved 38.3 runs more than the average second baseman over his career, according to Ultimate Zone Rating, including a remarkable 14.6 in 2011). He even hits for power (69 home runs, a career-high 20 of which have come in the first 110 games of this season).
Perhaps the most important tool Pedroia brings to the table, or at least the tool that’s set him apart from other contenders for this year’s AL MVP award, is his vision. His 69 walks rank fourth in the American League, as does his .401 on base percentage. The skill that allows some hitters to walk more than others is commonly referred to in baseball as patience, but it’s much more than not swinging at the first pitch. Recognizing that a 98-mile per hour fastball, or a slider that breaks 12 inches, will not cross the plate in the strike zone takes incredible visual acuity. Holding back a check swing takes wrist strength the average person can barely imagine. Fouling off full-count pitches to stay alive and earn a walk against a tough pitcher takes superb hand-eye coordination. That Dustin Pedroia has earned the right to casually jog 90 feet 69 times this season is a testament to his great athleticism.
When Dustin Pedroia won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2007, there was some sentiment that he was a novelty. He opened the year in such a massive slump that manager Terry Francona spent more time defending his reliance on a 23-year-old Lilliputian second baseman than he would spend later in the year trying to find harmless situations to let Eric Gagne give up four runs in an inning. By the end of the season, Pedroia had hit .317 with a .380 on base percentage and had introduced himself as Boston’s second baseman of the future.
In 2008, Pedroia took his game to another level, hitting .326 with 17 home runs and 20 stolen bases and vastly improving his defensive game. Still, Pedroia’s MVP award was met with much derision. According to Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, a metric that aggregates all of a player’s offensive and defensive contributions and determines how many more games his team won with him than it likely would have with a replacement player, Pedroia was the second-most valuable player in the AL in 2008, behind Cleveland’s Grady Sizemore. Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer had a strong MVP case as well, but Pedroia was certainly a defensible pick.
One common sentiment among fans is that Pedroia was graded on a curve. Sure, he’s great for a little guy, they say, but Alex Rodriguez is big and powerful and hits long home runs. Sizemore is sleek and athletic and makes diving catches in the outfield. Pedroia’s just an adequate player who looks like he has no business playing in Fenway Park, so they threw him a sympathy MVP Award the way the smallest guy on your Little League team got the Coach’s Award.
In 2011, Pedroia is again in the mix for AL MVP. Only Toronto’s Jose Bautista, who exploded from the gate like Babe Ruth riding Secretariat but has faded as spring turned to summer, has accumulated more Wins Above Replacement. In June and July, Pedroia’s 4.9 WAR were 44 percent better than runner-up Ben Zobrist’s. Read that last sentence again. He’s currently playing on a level no one in the game can match.
Still, when ESPN’s David Schoenfield stated last week that Pedroia would get his MVP vote if the season ended right now, web commenters were incredulous, again suggesting that Pedroia gets extra credit because he’s built more like a baseball writer than a baseball player. Much of this comes from fans’ unwillingness to look beyond traditional statistics and consider the value a player brings his team by walking, stealing bases at a high percentage, and turning would-be hits into outs with his glove. Teammate Adrian Gonzalez leads the league with a .352 batting average and 91 RBI, making him a popular choice for MVP. But Gonzalez is a horrible baserunner who plays a much less demanding defensive position (though he plays it very well). He’s simply not as valuable to the Red Sox as Pedroia is.
Compared to the average person his size, Dustin Pedroia is a once-in-a-generation athlete, somehow capable of turning 98-mph fastballs into doubles off the Green Monster with ease and covering more infield terrain (and often outfield too) than one might think possible. Compared to more perfect physical specimens like Pujols and Alex Rodriguez, Pedroia is a peer, capable of playing the same game at a similar level. He needs no curve to be compared to the game’s elite players.
And that is truly remarkable.