Mar 11, 2012; Lakeland, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks (16) bats against the Baltimore Orioles during the game at Joker Marchant Stadium. The Mets beat the Tigers 11-0. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Will Middlebrooks: Sophomore Stud or Slouch?

Entering last season, Will Middlebrooks was the consensus top prospect in Red Sox system. Flashing plus power, strong defense, and a body made for third base, Middlebrooks looked like the heir apparent to Kevin Youkilis and his expiring contract. Of course, he entered 2012 with just 16 games of Triple-A experience, batting a clearly substandard .161/.200/.268. Most felt that Middlebrooks would need close to a full season’s worth of Triple-A at-bats before being Major League ready. Even if he was ready, there was an obvious roadblock in Kevin Youkilis, one of most beloved Red Sox of this generation…

By now, you know the story. In late April, Youkilis was sidelined with back problems, opening the door for the red-hot Middlebrooks in the process. The precocious talent took off, made the incumbent expendable, and later resulted in the latter’s trade to the White Sox in June. One year later, Middlebrooks is penciled in as the starting third baseman with the expectations  of his top prospect pedigree, promising rookie debut, and replacing a fan favorite. While that’s a tall task for just about anyone, I have doubts that Middlebrooks can even just match last year’s success.

Much of my doubts concerning Middlebrooks has to do with his plate discipline struggles and favorable good fortune regarding balls in play. For instance, he had among the worst walk rates in the majors last year, coming in at a miserable 4.5 BB% (basically just a percentage of BB/PA) and well below the league average of 8%. While some are able to maintain success with poor plate discipline skills, those are typically incredibly coordinated and gifted hitters in the mold of an Ichiro Suzuki or Vladimir Guerrero.  Because of their line drive and high average propensity, these players were able to maintain acceptable on-base percentages in spite of their second-rate walk totals.

The same can not exactly be said of Middlebrooks, given his high strikeout rate (above average 24.5%) and lack of the same hand-eye coordination magic possessed by the aforementioned Suzuki and Guerrero. Detractors might point out that Middlebrooks hit a more than respectable .288 last year, but that leads me to my next point. Simply, Middlebrooks was a bit lucky last year in regards to balls in play.

I discussed the BABIP phenomenon a bit in my debut piece regarding Jon Lester and his chances at regaining ace status. For those unaware,  BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play, and measures how many balls went for hits when put in play (it excludes strikeouts and home runs). To an extent, any differentiation from the mean (roughly a .300 BABIP) tends to be a predictor of imminent regression until the mean is reached. I realize it may seem like a bit of a cop out to just see an extreme BABIP and say lucky/unlucky, but I am simply trying to point out that it is unlikely that Middlebrooks can repeat his batting average performance.

Furthermore, even the exceptions to the BABIP rule do not really apply to Middlebrooks’ case. The two biggest ways to post abnormally high BABIPs are to either hit a ton of line drives (hard hit balls will tend to go for hits more often, thus resulting in higher BABIPs) or simply be fast (faster players will tend to leg out more balls in play). Don’t believe me? Just look at last year’s BABIP leaders and see how many fit one or both of the profiles. For those that don’t profile in either camp, they are more or less just piggy backing off good fortune rather than skill.

Last year, Middlebrooks posted a .335 BABIP, without the aid of hitting a ton of line drives or being an especially fast runner. While he did post continually high BABIP numbers in the minors, those can be skewed by the weaker pitching and shoddy defenses employed by many of the teams. Once again, this isn’t to say that Middlebrooks cannot continually post high BABIPs; simply, I am stating that it is highly unlikely he can pull this trick off on a yearly basis.

For those that haven’t yet figured it out yet, what scares me the most regarding Middlebrooks’ sophomore campaign is that he won’t hit for a high enough average to maintain an even acceptable on base percentage. By now, most understand the importance of on-base percentage in today’s game and even with secondary skills such as power and strong defense, a player can lose a ton of value if he cannot get on base at a decent clip. For some, Middlebrooks is expected to be an all-star and anchor for a lineup that could be without David Ortiz for some time. This year I just don’t see that happening.

One additional caveat I do want to throw in is that Middlebrooks could see an improved walk rate this year for several reasons. One is that Middlebrooks should be (and will) recognized as a legitimate power threat. As such, pitchers will tend to pitch around these players so that a mistake down the middle will not be punished. Second, with Ortiz’s indefinite absence, Middlebrooks and the newly acquired Mike Napoli are the only “real” power threats currently in the lineup. Once more, pitchers could see more reason to pitch around them so that a lesser player could try to beat them instead. While I do see an improvement in this regard, I still wonder if it’ll be enough to drag Middlebrooks out of having a vaunted sophomore slump.

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