There's a beauty to homegrown baseball players. When a young player breaks into the major leagues and becomes a star, there's a feeling of ownership and shared destiny. Their career is a complete story, laid out before a fanbase, complete from the beginning until the day they hang up their spikes. Such has been Dustin Pedroia's path with the Boston Red Sox.
It's different for a veteran signed in free agency, or acquired in trade. Yes, fans may be excited to see if that player is the piece that can put their beloved franchise over the top, but there's also a reserve involved. Even a player such as David Price can be met with skepticism from fans who know them only as an occasional opponent, or as a set of statistics in a fantasy league. Like an actor suddenly introduced in the third act of a play, their presence feels foreign, perhaps even unearned. It's good to have you. Now prove it here. That player's own individual story in the game may never quite come to light.
As it turns out, the Tigers' second baseman, Ian Kinsler has an interesting undercurrent to his baseball career that has gone largely unnoticed. Since breaking into the majors in 2006, Kinsler and Pedroia, have been locked in a decade long contest in which neither has yet managed to seize the upper hand.
You won't find Kinsler and Pedroia linked on Baseball Reference's Similarity Scores. This isn't a contest in the public eye, shaped by harsh words, or some defining postseason moment. Probably no one expected them to be so linked when they made their debuts in 2006. And yet, all these years later, their individual results look very similar as they move into the later stages of a fine pair of major-league careers.
A fan of the Red Sox can point to wRC+ as a complete measure of Pedroia's offensive supremacy, however small the amount. Or simply nod to Pedroia's Most Valuable Player award in 2008. They can point to the World Series pennants flying above Fenway Park, two of which have Pedroia's stamp on them.
For Kinsler, one can look to his lead in two of three versions of Wins Above Replacement. Kinsler has 66 more home runs, 70 more stolen bases. He's produced more of those impact moments on the offensive side of the ledger. In recent years he's continued playing the ironman, only rarely missing a game, while Pedroia has battled a few injuries that ate away at his power and playing time.
The truth is that none of these things is really enough to separate one from the other. The two stalwart second baseman are locked in a duel, the outcome of which will be decided in the end by longevity more than anything else. And that's quite interesting when you consider how differently they were viewed when they entered the league.
Dustin Pedroia was the young superstar. Drafted by the Red Sox in 2004 with their second pick, Pedroia was viewed immediately as their second baseman of the future. He lived up to those hopes, bursting onto the scene to take home Rookie of the Year honors in 2007, his first full season. A year later he sparked a band of bearded renegades to the Red Sox' second World Series title in three years.
Kinsler was selected fifteen rounds later in 2003 by the Colorado Rockies, as the kind of depth infielder that teams routinely pick up just hoping that one of them survives to become a decent player at the major league level. Kinsler quietly posted a pair of modestly successful seasons before breaking out in 2008, making his first All-Star Game appearance the same year Pedroia captured the league MVP title. The 2009 season saw Kinsler post the first of two 30+ home run seasons. He also completed his development into an above average defender, and yet was snubbed by the fans, who sent Pedroia to the All-Star game in his place.
The 2011 season was the crescendo, with both men posting the best seasons of their career. Pedroia posted a 7.8 fWAR season, while Kinsler cracked 32 home runs, earning 7.2 fWAR and keying the Rangers to a World Series appearance.
The contest now, and going forward, revolves around which can fight the better rearguard action against the ravages of time. While neither Pedroia nor Kinsler has much of a shot at the Hall of Fame, and will both be regarded in the shadow of Robinson Cano, who also made his debut in 2006, both have to be seen as among the elite at their position over the last decade. What you have to wonder, is if either player ever looks over at the other, ten years in now, and thinks, "I'm not quitting until he does."
Because Kinsler and Pedroia's story goes way back to their college days. After his freshman year at Central Arizona College, Kinsler was recruited to Arizona State University with the assurance that he'd be the team's starting shortstop. But, only a few games into the season, head coach Pat Murphy bumped Kinsler in favor of a certain scrappy freshman who hadn't been expected to develop so quickly. Instead of playing shortstop at a major college, Kinsler found himself riding the bench most of the year while Pedroia played his position. Judging by everything we've seen from Kinsler over the years, it's hard to imagine he took that in stride. Kinsler left the program, transferring to Missouri for his junior year. He performed well there, and found himself drafted at season's end.
Perhaps, this is all long forgotten by both men, but somehow I doubt it. Both are the kind of underdog, hard-nosed players likely to never forget a slight or a rival. Guys who use every bit of doubt from others as competitive fuel. Witness Kinsler's sly bits of trollery toward his former club since coming to the Tigers, for example. Pedroia likewise plays the game with pure abandon, and a smaller player's need to do everything harder, faster and better than the other guy to get his due. While both are the type to downplay something like this in public, they are the type of athletes likely to know exactly how the other is doing, even all these years later.
I don't suggest that some kind of grudge match has fueled them to this point. Yet one wonders, when Pedroia battles to rehab and get back on the field, or when Kinsler is mired in an early season slump, if they don't ever take just a quick glance at the guy they've run side by side with for all these years, and find that extra bit of spark to pick up the pace.