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Pedroia keys Sox's defensive excellence

6/7/2013

BOSTON -- Thoughts on a rainy night unfit for man, beast or zombie, but damn near perfect for a hockey team poised to return to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years:

It goes overlooked in the glare of walk-off home runs, record-setting stolen bases and game-ending strikeouts, but the Boston Red Sox have not made an error in their past nine games, their longest errorless streak of the season.

The Sox rank seventh in the league in total defensive efficiency at .693, a measure that many consider a better barometer than fielding percentage in judging how well a team is playing afield. Total defensive efficiency calculates the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs.

Interestingly, three teams in the AL East rank ahead of the Sox: Baltimore (.709), Tampa Bay (.703) and Toronto (.696).

Dustin Pedroia is on a record-setting streak of his own. The second baseman has started all 61 games, the most of any player in the big leagues, and has yet to make an error. That's the longest streak ever to start a season by a Sox second baseman, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

All you need to do is watch Pedroia nightly to know he is playing great defense. "He makes it look awful easy and it's not. He's got such sure hands and such confidence,” manager John Farrell said after a typical Pedroia game recently. "I don't want to say we take it for granted. But we've come to see him make so many plays like that."

Pedroia has handled 267 chances without a bobble or bad throw. The percentage of balls he has handled that have resulted in an out is 96 percent, which is tied for highest in the majors among second basemen. In Total Zone Total Fielding runs above average, a calculation of runs above average a player is worth, Pedroia ranked first with eight. In plus-minus fielding, another metric that enjoys wide currency among sabermetricians, Pedroia is tied with Brian Dozier of the Twins at eight.

On the other side of the ball? Pedroia comes into the weekend ranked fifth in hitting, third in on-base percentage, fifth in runs, third in hits, fifth in doubles and second in walks.

A couple of weeks ago, when it was mentioned here that Pedroia was playing at an MVP-caliber level, some readers questioned how anyone but Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers could be mentioned in an MVP conversation. Granted, Cabrera is having a phenomenal season, potentially better than his MVP-winning performance last season, but it's probably worth mentioning that in WAR (wins above replacement), a statistical measure adored by some and dreaded by others, Cabrera leads the league at 3.6. But Pedroia is right behind at 3.5, the same number as Orioles third baseman Manny Machado. And defense plays its part in that, for both Machado and Pedroia, who rank 1-2 in defensive WAR.

The most remarkable aspect of Pedroia's performance, of course, is that he has done all of this with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, an injury incurred when he made a headfirst slide into first base in the season's opening game in New York.

It's the same injury that Sox closer Andrew Bailey had last spring to the thumb of his pitching hand, for which he had surgery and was sidelined for the team's first 116 games. Chris Paul of basketball's Los Angeles Clippers had the same injury and underwent offseason surgery last summer, as did catcher Henry Blanco, who was playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks at the time he was hurt last August and missed the rest of the season. Another was tackle Jeremy Bridges of football's Arizona Cardinals, who tore his UCL at the start of last season, had surgery, and was ultimately released.

It's a small ligament that plays a vital role in the hand, serving as the key stabilizer of the thumb and integral to the strength of one's grip. Typically, as in Pedroia's case, the injury occurs when the thumb is bent backward, away from the hand.

When surgery takes place, it involves the reattaching of the ligament using bone anchors, which are sutures with screws attached. When surgery is not required, the player is typically braced for anywhere from a month to three months, and undergoes daily range of motion exercises to keep the thumb from being bent backward again.

Pedroia has not had surgery, nor has he been wearing a brace or cast on the hand. Dr. David Geier, orthopedic director at the Medical University of South Carolina, said it is possible that healing could take place without surgery, although he said Pedroia has probably been fortunate that he has not been involved in another play in which his thumb was bent backward.

Geier has not examined Pedroia, so he does not know the degree to which the ligament is torn. Pedroia said in earlier interviews it was a complete tear, which would seem to suggest he'll need surgery at some point. "The issue is not whether he will tear up the thumb further," Geier said, "but can he do what he does on the field?"

The answer, to this point of the season, is an unequivocal yes, and Pedroia and Farrell both insist the thumb is no longer an issue.