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This time last year, it looked as though the Red Sox had secured the third base position for years to come. Will Middlebrooks got called up to the big leagues in May, and the combination of his big bat and fielding ability at the hot corner had fans dreaming about the future. His play was so impressive that it all but forced long time Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis out of town.
Before a broken wrist ended his season last August, Middlebrooks was batting .288 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI in only 75 games played. He also made just 9 errors and had a .949 fielding percentage while showing off a strong arm. These numbers weren’t bad, considering Middlebrooks was a shortstop until Boston converted him to third base in the minors. He was firmly planted in the lineup as a dual power and average threat while being a plus on the defensive side.
On opening day of 2013, Middlebrooks was penciled in as the Red Sox starting third baseman and the team had no plans of changing that any time soon. He even had game against the Toronto Blue Jays right off the bat in which he hit three home runs. But all of a sudden, Middlebrooks fell into a prolonged slump. It may have had something to do with a collision with back-up catcher David Ross in May that sent him to the disabled list with an injured back. He played some after that DL stint, but on June 25th, the Red Sox decided that his slump had gone too far.
At that point in the season, Middlebrooks was batting .192 with 9 home runs and 25 RBI in 53 games. As a result, he was sent down to the minor league affiliate Pawtucket Red Sox to try and get his touch back at the plate. So how did such a promising young player end up in such a brutal slump? An obvious reason is that he is still just 24 years old, and being the every day third baseman for the Boston Red Sox doesn’t come without tremendous amounts of pressure.
If you’re looking at it from a baseball perspective, however, the most glaring problem is his lack of patience at the plate. Even as he was tearing up the majors last year, he walked just 13 times in 267 at bats. Meanwhile, he struck out in 70 of them. In his 53 games prior to his 2013 demotion, he had another 62 strikeouts while walking just 10 times. Compare that to arguably the Red Sox best hitter, David Ortiz. Big Papi has struck out just 52 times in almost twice as many games while walking 57 times. That is who Middlebrooks needs to learn from. If he swings at better pitches, then the walks go up, strikeouts go down, and the average and power numbers will increase.
Boston made it a point to Middlebrooks that his demotion wasn’t just for a few days. He played 45 games for Pawtucket, batting .268 while hitting 10 home runs and driving in 35 runs. The numbers Boston probably looked at more closely were the walks and strikeouts. He had 16 walks and 38 strikeouts. While those numbers could certainly be better, they were an improvement.
With third base now being a serious position of need, the Red Sox recalled Middlebrooks this past Saturday, August 10th. He started that game as well as the next day, both versus the Kansas City Royals. In his two games back, Middlebrooks has gone 3 for 7 with two runs batted in, a walk, and two strikeouts. So far so good, but obviously the sample size is very small. I liked that they slotted him ninth in the lineup too. He has to earn his spot back like everyone else.
I still think Will Middlebrooks is going to be a staple of the Red Sox future. His case is a classic example of a young player having too much success to soon and then having a rough time adjusting to what pitchers had figured out about him. I think the Red Sox handled this perfectly. His production wasn’t what they needed, but there was no need to trade or bench him. He just needed some time to relax and figure things out. They let him get regular at bats in Pawtucket, where the spotlight wasn’t as bright, so that he could see what he was doing wrong and fix it the best he could. Now that Middlebrooks has taken some time to see how pitchers are approaching him and realized that he can’t take his spot on the roster for granted, look for him to be the Will Middlebrooks of last year and provide a huge boost.