Dustin Pedroia Comes Out Swinging
He’s not that short, can’t stand his hometown, and thinks A-Rod is a big “dork.” And even after the World Series win, even after the MVP award, he still feels he needs to fight for respect.
He was walking at seven months, his father remembers, and almost from the beginning he was exceptionally coordinated. “I’ll tell you what,” Guy Pedroia says. “He was doing things, and I’m saying, ‘Oh, my God.'” The kids in town would play a baseballish game with a wadded-up paper cup, which hitters would have to strike with their hands. Dustin was playing just out of diapers.
He got his athleticism from his mother, Debbie, a former college tennis player who also bequeathed to Dustin her small frame (she is 5 feet tall). She was his first coach: T-ball, when he was four years old. “She was tough,” Guy says with a laugh. “She couldn’t win by a big enough margin to make her happy.”
Pedroia played football as a freshman, a quarterback at 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds who could nevertheless zip the ball 40 yards on a line. He played basketball, too, and up in the stands, Guy would watch his son weave the ball behind his back, smiling all the while, and wonder, Where did this come from?
Whatever the sport, Pedroia played it intuitively. His old baseball coaches invariably mention his “baseball IQ.” Rob Bruno, the coach of a Northern California traveling team who followed Pedroia closely and often coached against him, was struck by the kid’s ability to make tiny defensive adjustments, how he would move a step to the left or right, depending on the hitter, and turn every grounder into a routine out. “He was a 15-year-old who looked like a 13-year-old playing like an 18-year-old,” Bruno says. (He also recalls the kid’s towering self-assurance: “At 15, he came up and introduced himself by saying, ‘We’re going to take it to you guys today.'”) Pat Murphy, Pedroia’s coach at Arizona State, never had to tell the then-shortstop where to go on the field, and today he waxes positively mystical on the subject. “Pedroia,” Murphy says, “has the unbelievable ability to understand himself in time and space.”
If Pedroia’s performance arises from any one trait, it’s not some intangible notion like “scrappiness.” It’s his kinesthetic genius. Consider his swing: Coming into the majors, it wasn’t just big. It was wild, overanxious, too long, people feared. Live, it might look that way, even now. You see a smallish guy bugging out his eyes and wiggling his fingers on the bat handle and then swinging for Cambridge. His back knee nearly drops to the dirt; his front leg kicks out toward the shortstop (a “red flag” for the Sox’s hitting coach, Dave Magadan, the first time he studied it). But break it down into its component parts, and the swing becomes a model of efficiency and restraint. “It’s violent, but there’s control,” Magadan says. “He keeps his front shoulder more or less on the baseball, and he’s got a little bit of a bat lag.” That means he’s able to swing at the last possible moment, which suggests both prodigious bat speed and preternatural hand-eye coordination. In this regard, Pedroia’s size may actually be an asset. “You’re direct to the baseball to the point of contact,” Magadan says. “A guy like him who’s so short to the baseball can wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. He’s able to recognize pitches.” The very bigness of his swing is its virtue. “That’s a very athletic move,” Rob Bruno says, “to be able to hit a baseball coming at 90 miles per hour and to be swinging with maximum effort, as he does, but to also be constantly squaring up to the ball.”
Epstein drafted Pedroia with the 65th pick in 2004 after a junior year in which he hit .393 with a .502 on-base percentage and 34 extra-base hits against 15 strikeouts. “He’s easy to dismiss at first glance,” Epstein says. “You walk into a ballpark and someone says, ‘Pick out the best pro prospect,’ and you don’t know anything about their backgrounds or stats, and you watch the guys take infield, watch the game, he wouldn’t be the guy who jumps out at you, for obvious reasons. But if you don’t look at him at all, don’t look at the scouting, just look at the spreadsheet, he looks like one of the best hitters in the country.”