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Did size matter for Pedroia?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 18, 2008 05:12 PM

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What we will never know for certain is the impact of the Dustin Pedroia story, of the baseball equivalent of "The Little Engine That Could." What we do know is that Pedroia is a positively brilliant baseball player who was deserving of this year’s American League Most Valuable Player Award, an honor bestowed upon him today and one that is cause for celebration.

Now comes the question that nobody in these parts really wants to touch:

What was it, exactly, that made Pedroia such a landslide winner over his teammate, the equally deserving Kevin Youkilis?

Could it be that Pedroia had the advantage of sentiment because his perseverance resonated with all of us?

Here in Boston, we all know that Youkilis vs. Pedroia was a dead heat this season, right down to every last detail. Youkilis knocked in 115 runs. Pedroia scored 118. Generally speaking, both were extremely consistent. Both played excellent defense – regardless of the Gold Glove balloting – and Youkilis did so at two positions, only fortifying his case for being at least the most versatile MVP candidate in baseball.

Yet when it came to the MVP voting, Pedroia got 16 first-place votes. Youkilis got two. Both voters from Boston (Sean McAdam of the Boston Herald and Jeff Goldberg of the Hartford Courant) had Pedroia first, all of which suggests that Pedroia was somehow an obvious choice.

He wasn’t.

By definition, any election is a flawed process because there is simply no way to account for the human element. In 1999, when Rafael Palmeiro won a third consecutive Gold Glove at first base, managers and coaches gave him the honor despite the fact that Palmeiro played a mere 28 games at the position. ("We’re guilty," Sox manager Jimy Williams said of his voting brethren at the time.) Anyone who believes that he or she is more qualified to cast a ballot in any election misses the point that there always will be something to scream about.

With Youkilis, we cannot help but wonder: Was he hurt by the fact that Pedroia is 5 foot 8, that Pedroia had 18 productive at-bats in the cleanup position when Youkilis had 48 productive games there? Would Pedroia have had the same overwhelming support if he were 6 foot 1? On some level, we all know what Pedroia meant to the Red Sox, how gifted a player he is, how much of a leader he has become. We also know that Youkilis had a better batting average with runners in scoring position (.374 to .307) and a more productive September, despite the fact that Pedroia batted .326 during the final month while Youkilis hit .275.

The details? In September, Youkilis led in OPS, .992 to .914. In September, Youkilis led in RBI, 21 (in 21 games) to 15 (in 24 games). Youkilis led in homers, too, 5-2.

Pedroia’s margin in runs scored during the final month? It was 12-9.

Yet come voting time, Pedroia got 16 first-place votes to Youkilis’ two, which again introduces factors that are, in a word, immeasurable.

For a moment here, let’s turn back the clock to 2001, when Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki doubled as the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP during what was a truly historic season. Taking the major leagues by storm, Suzuki batted .350 with eight home runs, 69 RBI and 127 runs scored while winning a Gold Glove Award. Many in Seattle (and across the country) wondered whether Ichiro was even the MVP on his own team during a season in which second baseman Bret Boone batted .331 with 37 home runs, 141 RBI and 118 runs scored while similarly playing excellent defense. (Boone won four Gold Gloves during his career.) Yet when it came election time, Suzuki ended up with 11 first-place votes while Boone ended up with seven, finishing third in an election that was somewhat similar to this one.

But at least that one was closer.

In retrospect, even those of us who argued for Suzuki at the time (guesses, anyone?) now wonder whether we made the right decision. Could it be that we all just caught up in the wonder of Ichiro, who hit the major leagues like a tsunami? Could be it that Suzuki surprised us because he was the first Japanese positional player to have a substantive impact on our national pastime? Could it be that Suzuki was the better story and not necessarily the better player or the more valuable one?

Seriously, go back and look. In the season immediately following the departure of Alex Rodriguez, Boone did far more to replace the void in Seattle’s lineup than Suzuki did. In OPS, Boone bettered Suzuki, .950 to .838. That discrepancy is somewhat similar to that between Youkilis (.958) and Pedroia (.869) this season, and yet the man with lower number was a virtual landslide winner in the election, even with one respected voter (Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News) leaving Pedroia off his ballot entirely.

Fine, so Grant should have had Pedroia in the top 10.

But for what it’s worth, he also had Youkilis first.

Please, do not misunderstand here. WE ALL KNOW THAT DUSTIN PEDROIA IS A WORTHY MVP. That is not the issue. The issue is whether there were elements involved that made Pedroia a sentimental favorite to the point where he got eight times as many first-place votes as a teammate who was equally worthy of the award. Entering this season, none of us ever could have envisioned a scenario where Youkilis could substitute for Manny Ramirez (as Boone did for Rodriguez) in the middle of the Boston batting order. Yet somehow, Pedroia’s 18 at-bats seemed to carry far more weight than Youkilis’ 48 games, all because Pedroia doesn’t fit the profile – or is it the stereotype? – of what a cleanup hitter should be.

You say Dustin Pedroia, I say Doug Flutie.

In both cases, the story of a man overcoming physical limitations – perceived or real - is indisputably part of the package.

Of course, Pedroia has heard all of this nonsense before, and his size unfairly has been held against him for the large majority of his career. Two years ago at this time, we all wondered whether Pedroia could be an everyday player in the big leagues, let alone the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year. Now he is the reigning MVP. The Red Sox now look like geniuses for making Pedroia a controversial first-round selection and Pedroia looks like a true giant among his peers, someone who deserves far more credit than for being a small man excelling in a world dominated by big men.

For sure, Pedroia deserved this MVP award.

The size of the man should never again be a question.

But shouldn’t we at least wonder about the size of the victory?

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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