Before setting the baseball world abuzz with a solid 75-game stretch last season, there were more than a few questions surrounding then 23-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks.
Kevin Goldstein, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, wrote: “The biggest challenge for Middlebrooks will be his approach. He sees far too many pitches as hittable and can expand his strike zone at times, which is a trait big league pitchers will surely exploit. The power should play immediately, but he could struggle in the batting average category.”
ESPN’s Keith Law echoed the sentiment: “The issue for Middlebrooks will be whether he can hit enough to be able to hit for power, and he’s not going to hit unless he can recognize off-speed stuff better and at least threaten to take the occasional walk, getting into more fastball counts.”
These were just a few examples that suggested Middlebrooks needed more minor league seasoning, and in a perfect world he may have gotten it. But Kevin Youkilis got hurt and the Red Sox, looking for a spark following an 11-13 start, called up what’s likely to be their third baseman of the future.
Middlebrooks was red hot at that time, hitting .333/.380/.677 with five doubles and ten homeruns through his first 100 plate appearances with Pawtucket. But as both Goldstein and Law pointed out previous, Middlebrooks’ walk rate was a bit of a concern. He walked 7% of the time, which is only slightly better than the mark he showed the previous season (5.5%).
But walks be damned.
Middlebrooks began his big league career by slugging .324/.363/.581 through his first 42 games with the Red Sox, creating a minor news story involving the potential return of Youkilis (which, of course, led to his trade). But herein lays the problem. He walked just eight times. And once big league pitchers figured it out, Middlebrooks’ bat turned ice cold.
From June 26 through August 10 (his final game due to injury), he hit a paltry .244/.278/.420. The real problem: he walked just five times in 126 PAs, or 3.96% of the time.
It plagued Middlebrooks at the start of 2013 too. He was batting .192/.228/.389 with a 60-to-9 strikeout to walk ratio, which led to his demotion back to Pawtucket in mid June.
Now, though, Middlebrooks is back thanks to the opening created by dealing Jose Iglesias. But is he ready?
Middlebrooks spent 45 games in Pawtucket, hitting .268/.327/464 with good pop (.196 Isolated Power) and a career best 19.4% strikeout rate. But more importantly he’s walking, more than 8% of time – the second best mark in his minor league career.
Granted, it’s only through 196 plate appearances, but it’s nonetheless encouraging given that he’s posted two back-to-back seasons of sub-5.5% walk rates.
In an ideal world Middlebrooks would have likely stayed down on the farm, looking to take over the hot corner next opening day. But the Sox are the second best team in the AL, holding a narrow three-game lead over the hard charging Rays, and are in need of a third baseman.
Certainly, his production over the final 40-plus games will be something to watch. Through two games back, Middlebrooks is 3-for-7 with 1 walk and two strikeouts.
Photo of Will Middlebrooks Courtesy of AP Photo/Steven Senne via ESPN.com