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The decline of J.D. Drew?

06.22.11 at 9:09 am ET
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At a time when Josh Reddick has been giving evidence of a maturing approach at the plate, J.D. Drew has been unable to make any kind of offensive impact for the Red Sox. His game-ending punchout on Tuesday night — a check swing on a 95 mph fastball against Padres closer Heath Bell – placed a punctuation mark on a season-long drought.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona maintains that he still expects that Drew will go on one of his annual hot streaks in which he proves capable of hitting home runs in bunches. Yet while that possibility certainly looms, it is also fair to ask whether Drew is simply in a state of career decline at age 35. Certainly, his standing among his peers suggests as much.

For years, Drew’s numbers have suggested a player who is subject to an unfair degree of criticism. This year, however, statistics offer him no quarter.

There are 68 outfielders in the majors who have had at least 200 plate appearances. Of those, Drew ranks in the bottom 20 percent in nearly every offensive category.

Drew’€™s nine extra-base hits are tied for 64th ‘€“ just one ahead of notorious batter’€™s box lightweight Juan Pierre. His .230 average is 61st; his .328 slugging percentage is 63rd; his .660 OPS is 57th. Though his .332 OBP ranks in the middle of the pack, his 19 runs (in a lineup that leads the majors in scoring) are second to last and his 18 RBIs are 57th.

Moreover, there are other telling aspects that speak to a decline in his other tools. He has become a more conservative baserunner as his speed has diminished, as he’€™s taken an extra base (first to third on a single; first to home on a double; second to home on a single) just 17 percent of the time, less than half the 38 percent clip at which he did so last year.

In fact, 2011 marks the third straight year of decline in the rate at which he’€™s taken an extra base. That trend points to the toll taken by the game on his legs at age 35.

It is important to note that metrics such as Fangraphs’€™ UZR and John Dewan’€™s Plus/Minus suggest that he is still playing defense at a high level. He still gets picture perfect breaks on most balls and takes remarkably direct routes, something that has played a significant part in the Sox’ display of excellent early-season outfield defense. His collaboration with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford to create one of the best defensive outfields in the majors should not be overlooked when contemplating his relevance in the lineup.

Nonetheless, his lack of impact in other aspects of the game has made it fair to wonder whether others — most notably Reddick, who is considered a very good defensive outfielder — should get a greater opportunity to play.

When the Sox signed Drew to his five-year, $70 million deal, they were well aware that he would likely show decline by the final year or two of the contract, as he moved beyond his prime. That was, quite simply, the cost of doing business with the free agent following the 2006 season.

Now, while there is still time for Drew to go on a tear that suggests that rumors of his demise are to some degree exaggerated, thus far in 2011, that has yet to occur. Drew has performed like a player for whom the end of days as a productive regular is nearing, making it fair to wonder what kind of alternatives the Red Sox should explore — whether internal or external — going forward this year.

The situation lacks urgency thanks to the exceptional play of the roster from top to bottom. The team is winning in bunches with Drew in the lineup. Nonetheless, while Drew was one of the better outfielders in the majors in his first 3 1/2 years in Boston (at least when playing, his power, patience and defense were all well above average), it has become increasingly fair to view right field as an area of potential upgrade for a team that is striving for remarkable goals.

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