FORT MYERS, Fla. –- There are two stories with the defending champion Boston Red Sox that fascinate me … one an obviously fascinating one, the other not so much. The Red Sox are so settled, so confident, so utterly loaded that it’s good to find stories at the extremes.
The obviously fascinating story is the remarkable, almost supernatural, comeback of Grady Sizemore. There really hasn’t been a story like that in quite some time.
Sizemore was one of the best players in baseball when he emerged on the scene as a 22-year-old in Cleveland in 2005. Right off the bat, he played Gold Glove defense, hit with power, stole bases. In his second year, he led the American League in doubles and runs scored. In his third, he walked 100 times, scored 118 runs and led Cleveland to the American League Championship Series (where they lost to Boston).
In his fourth, he hit 33 homers, stole 38 bases and won his second Gold Glove. He was a phenomenon. If there had been an open draft among general managers in the American League, Grady Sizemore would have been one of the first five picks for sure.
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And then, it was over. Like that. Maybe, in retrospect, people might have seen it coming. Sizemore was an all-out, crash-into-walls, dive-for-everything sort of player. For four years, he seemed indestructible … but nobody is indestructible. He pulled a groin muscle. He banged his elbow. He cracked his knee. He cut his other knee. Knee again. Groin again. Back surgery. Hernia. More knee problems.
Remember that scene in Apollo 13 where the explosion happens, and every warning light on the panel goes off all at once. Yeah. That was Grady Sizemore.
Sizemore missed two full seasons -– 2012 and 2013 -– but saying that still doesn’t quite describe the odds he faced this spring. The year before, 2011, he was slow and all but helpless in the 71 games he played. In 2010, he played only 33 games and hit .211/.271/.289 without a home run. It had been FOUR YEARS since he had been anything resembling healthy. When the Red Sox signed him for $750,000 and a string of improbable incentives, the best thing anyone could say about it was that it was “low risk.”
Well, it certainly was that … it seemed exactly the sort of thing a loaded team like the Red Sox does. They came in flush with starting pitching, and returning all but one key offensive player from last season –- and remember, last season they scored 50 more runs than any team in baseball.
The one key player they lost, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, seemed to be at least partially replaceable by a talented young outfielder named Jackie Bradley. Bringing Sizemore into camp as insurance was as low risk as they come.
Only, right from the start, Sizemore amazed. It wasn’t so much how well he played as how healthy he looked. “From the first day, it was like he was picking right up from 2009,” one Red Sox official says. “That was the extraordinary thing. You couldn’t even tell there had been something wrong with him.”
“He might be -– MIGHT BE -– a half-step slower,” another Red Sox official says. “I’m not even sure that’s true. But even so, he looks absolutely healthy. You better believe we have watched for any sign of rust, any sign of injury, anything at all. We haven’t seen anything.”
Spring training numbers are meaningless, of course, but Sizemore’s .310 average, his two doubles and a homer that came late, when he started hitting the ball harder, his running with abandon on the bases … it’s not an exaggeration to say they left the Red Sox's management and players awestruck. These are sober people who look at things in a sober way. This guy was making them believe in miracles.
Sure: Who knows how long it will last? Nobody does, but this is one of the beautiful things about baseball, especially around Opening Day. A Grady Sizemore story happens, and you can’t help but fall for it.
The other story that fascinates me is on the opposite end of the spectrum -– you know exactly what second baseman Dustin Pedroia will do this year. He will hit right around .300, score between 90 and 100 runs, hit 10 to 20 homers, steal 10 to 20 bases, play Gold Glove defense at second base and bark at everyone “We’ve got to wake up and get this game,” every third of fourth day when he senses the energy getting a little low.
How the heck does Pedroia do this every year? He’s listed at 5-foot-8 -– there’s no way he’s that tall. He weighs 165 pounds, maybe. He’s probably no better than an average runner, if you’re using a stopwatch, and his arm is only OK for a second baseman, which isn’t that great, and at least one scout told me after he was drafted in the second round: “I wouldn’t have taken him in the 10th round.”
In asking around Red Sox camp -– teammates, coaches, management types and other observers –- it seems that Pedroia’s consistent brilliance comes from a combination of things that tend to get overlooked:
1. He’s obviously more talented than my purposely reserved scouting report above would suggest. He is small, he is light, he is not all that fast, yes. But, as one Red Sox person says, “The guy takes the high fastball and consistently rifles that into the gap. You think that’s luck? People say he swings from the heels. Ask yourself: You ever see the guy fall off balance.? That’s pure talent.”
The five tools of baseball -– hitting, power, running, throwing, fielding -– are useful but generally vague. What, after all, is “hitting?” What causes power? What makes someone a good defender? Pedroia has fantastic hand-eye coordination, which allows him to make hard contact with pitches others cannot handle. He has a great command of the strike zone (he has walked more than he has struck out in his career) and he’s makes all the plays at second base day after day.
2. Pedroia really does has a great sense for the game. It’s kind of funny to hear people who have spent their entire lives playing and studying baseball reduced to saying, “The guy’s just a ballplayer.” But that’s so often what it comes down to for Pedroia. Teammate after teammate found themselves talking about how they will see someone pull a ground ball into the hole between first and second, only to find that the hole is gone because Pedroia, almost illogically, had shifted into that spot.
“I’m not even sure he could explain to you why he does all the things he does,” one of the observers says. “He has just played the game so long and he’s studied it so hard that he just naturally does these things all the time. He’ll lay down a bunt when everyone’s playing back. He’ll take two steps in and someone will hit a slow chopper. You watch him play every day, you just constantly ask yourself, ‘How did he know?’’
3. He’s just such a fierce competitor. You know how there’s one person in your pickup basketball game who wants to win more than anybody else, and he will drive you nuts by playing extra rough defense, or by actually designing plays when everyone else just wants a beer? That’s Pedroia. In the most competitive baseball league, he still stands out … the guy never stops wanting to win.
That doesn’t necessarily make him popular player outside of Boston … and maybe even inside Boston there are times when people kind of wish he’d chill out for a bit. But he won’t chill out, not ever, and that’s a big part of why at the end of the year his numbers will be exactly where they always are.
The Red Sox are in a good place now after a bad turn in 2011 and '12. They blend young talent –- like the special-looking shortstop Xander Boegarts and potential slugging third baseman Will Middlebrooks –- with great old talent like the seemingly ageless David Ortiz and 30-somethings Pedroia, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino.
The pitching might blow everyone out of the water this year. The Red Sox seem convinced that this could be Jon Lester’s best season (and he had a Cy Young-quality season in 2010), everyone is astonished by the spring maturity of Clay Buchholz, youngster Felix Doubront is gifted and veterans John Lackey and Jake Peavy are pros. Nobody knows if closer Koji Uehara can come close to his miraculous 2013 season, but nobody hit him all camp so, hey, they’ll enjoy him until further notice.
And everyone just feels good. Whether it’s an inexplicable story like Grady Sizmore or a more predictable one like Pedroia, the Red Sox are just ready to get started. Why not? These are good days in Boston.