One of my first posts here at BSI was in regards to Will Middlebrooks and his likelihood of succumbing to a sophomore slump. For those that didn’t read the piece or are just too lazy to go back and read it now, I basically concluded that Middlebrooks was set up for failure this year because he likely would not get on base enough to buoy his inevitable drop in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). (See quote below)
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.
This year has obviously not gone as planned for Middlebrooks, as he has simply been one of the worst regulars in baseball this year. Offensively, defensively, you name it, Middlebrooks has been subpar. Contrary to what his strong, 6’3″, 220 lb frame would suggest, Middlebrooks has hit more like an emaciated middle infielder with his .205/.239/.417 slash line. This disastrous start has caused some to clamor for acquiring a potential upgrade through trade while others have demanded an outright demotion for the Texas native.
So what stands as the reason behind Middlebrooks’ struggles? The most obvious culprit is his absolutely dreadful walk rate. Middlebrooks walks at a clip of 3.9%, eleventh worst in the majors right now, which is even lower than noted free swingers Josh Hamilton (5.4%) and Pablo Sandoval (5.6%). While this certainly is true and deserving of the blame, there happens to be more issues at hand than just his phobia for walks.
At Fangraphs.com (I highly recommend the site; I am a huge fan of its analysis and wealth of information), every Major League player’s plate discipline stats can be found and compared relative to his peers. When glancing over Middlebrooks’ statistics, his inability to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone and his swing percentage as a whole unsurprisingly both rate as above average. These are both expected to be seen from a free swinger such as Middlebrooks.
However, the numbers that jump out the most are those that highlight his inability to even make contact with the baseball. Looking at Middlebrooks’ O-Contact% (contact with pitches outside the strike zone), Z-Contact% (contact of pitches inside the zone) and Contact% (contact percentage in general), all show well below average marks. For example, here are the league averages for each of these statistics, with Middlebrooks’ numbers in parenthesis.
O-Contact%: 68% (50.5%)
Z-Contact%: 88% (84.5%)
Contact%: 81% (73.4%)
Clearly, Middlebrooks has trouble even just putting the bat on ball, which can also be seen in his absurd 28% K rate. That probably isn’t news to many, as it becomes quite apparent for anyone who watches a Sox game that Middlebrooks strikes out a lot. But the part that I find extremely troubling is that for someone who chases pitches out of the strike zone at an above average clip, he makes contact on those pitches much less than the average player (17.5% to be exact). Simply, he continues to chase pitches that he will never hit to begin with, putting himself in situations he is likely to fail (such as falling behind in the count) or K outright.
This dangerous combination of walk avoidance and inability to make contact does not bode well for future success. Players that tend to succeed with poor walk rates at least make enough contact to support solid batting averages, something that I alluded to in my first Middlebrooks article. Without a change in approach or a sudden improvement in hand-eye coordination, Sox fans should be worried about the future for their young third baseman. His BABIP fueled rookie campaign disguised some of the underlying plate discipline and contact issues, which unfortunately are just now rearing their ugly head.
It is worth noting that just as Middlebrooks probably experienced good luck last year in terms of his average on balls in play, his .240 BABIP definitely isn’t doing him any favors either. With that said, even the likely improvement in this category still should make Sox fans question whether Middlebrooks will be manning the hot corner in the upcoming years. Players that strike out in 30% of their plate appearances quite simply, have trouble staying in the majors without acceptable walk rates or more well-rounded skillsets.
Middlebrooks’ career is far from written in stone. He’s still learning to tap into some of that plus power and has been profiled as a solid defender most of his career, even with this year’s struggles (6 errors, -7 defensive runs saved). There was a reason he was a highly touted prospect for years and was absolutely one of the few bright spots on an otherwise catastrophic 2012 season. This year, the game of baseball has made an adjustment to him, and has succeeded in exposing him thus far. Now, it’s time for Middlebrooks to make an adjustment of his own.