After a relatively off year for a team that tumbled into the AL East basement in shocking fashion, Dustin Pedroia has reclaimed his spot among the game's elite, as have the Red Sox. The 29-year-old second baseman's performance is all the more impressive because he's playing with a torn ulnar collateral liagment in his left thumb, an injury he suffered on Opening Day but one that wasn't public knowledge until reported by the Boston media on Tuesday night.
Pedroia, who has played through numerous hand and wrist injuries in the past, tore the thumb ligament during an apparent brain cramp: he slid headfirst into first base in the ninth inning of a game the Red Sox led by six runs. An MRI revealed that he had a complete tear of the UCL (not to be confused with the UCL of the elbow, the injury that inevitably leads to Tommy John surgery), but doctors said that so long as he could tolerate the pain and swelling, he could play through the injury without risking further damage. Such a tear typically requires eight weeks to heal — and may eventually require offseason surgery — but he understandably didn't want to miss that time, particularly with David Ortiz starting the year on the disabled list. In fact, Pedroia would have preferred the injury had flown under the radar entirely. Here's what he told the Boston Herald:
"People shouldn’t know if you’re 100 percent or not. It is what it is, and it’s my responsibility to perform well… My mindset is if I’m nicked up, I have to find other ways to perform. That’s the way I think about it. Maybe I’m crazy.'"
A quick walk through Baseball Prospectus' injury database suggests that Pedroia is indeed either crazy, or just tougher than a two-dollar steak. In 2007, his first full major league season, he played through a cracked hamate bone in his left hand for two months and helped the Red Sox win the World Series before undergoing offseason surgery. In 2010, he fractured a bone in his left foot via a foul ball, but tried to take grounders on his knees less than a week later; alas, after missing a month and a half, he played in just two more games before pain forced him back to the disabled list and then under the knife to implant a screw in the foot. Playing with the screw implanted during the entire 2011 season, he set a career high with 7.9 Wins Above Replacement.
Pedrioa battled a litany of hand injuries last year. He strained the adductor muscle in his right thumb in late May, then suffered a sprain of the same thumb in July, an injury that sent him to the DL for the 15-day minimum. He tore a ligament in his right pinkie in late July, an injury that wasn't diagnosed until two months later and that required offseason surgery to fix. He broke the ring finger on his left hand on Oct. 1 but played the last two games of the season, both to set an example for his teammates even amid a lost season and because the games had playoff implications for the rival Yankees.
So it's par for the course for Pedroia to play through this, and he's done so with distinction, hitting .332/.422/.444; he's sixth in the AL in batting average and third in on-base percentage. The injury may have sapped his power; his .122 isolated power is 34 points lower than his career mark, but all three of his homers have come in May, and this month's .162 ISO is right around his standard, offering hope that he can provide more punch. Meanwhile, his 13.5 percent walk rate is a career high, and his batting average is just four points shy of his best, which he set during his AL MVP-winning 2008 season. His 3.0 WAR is second among AL position players behind only Manny Machado (3.4). Despite the injury, Pedroia has yet to miss a game this year. Along with newcomer Mike Napoli (.258/.338/.485) and struggling holdover Jacoby Ellsbury (.257/.324/.351), he's one of only three position players who have played in more than 46 of the team's 53 games; meanwhile, Will Middlebrooks and Shane Victorino both landed on the DL this week. Pedroia's daily presence has helped the Sox to a 32-21 record, tops in the AL East by a game, and second-best in the league behind the Rangers. As with David Ortiz (.336/.397/.603), Jon Lester (3.34 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (1.73 ERA), he's one of several Boston veterans performing as though last year's nightmare — not to mention the team's 2010 and 2011 playoff misses — never happened. So long as those players hold up, the Red Sox have a good chance of remaining in the hunt for a playoff spot.