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Key to Middlebrooks' improvement has been hitting better when behind

Posted by David D'Onofrio  August 22, 2013 07:11 AM

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Now 11 games into his second chance to be the Red Sox' everyday third baseman for 2013, things couldn't be going much better for Will Middlebrooks. Demoted in late June because of the holes in his bat and an exploitable approach, he returned while the big club was in Kansas City on Aug. 10, and since then the only game he's finished without a hit was the one in which he was intentionally walked twice. Over the stretch, he's boasting a .441 average while reaching base at a .535 clip and slugging .707.

At every opportunity he continues to insist his approach at the plate hasn't changed -- and that's fine. Admitting something needed to be corrected isn't typically easy for a big leaguer still a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday. And, also, there's a chance he's just being honest.

But that would bring up a question: Are these 44 plate appearances evidence that he's actually improved, or are his numbers simply the byproduct of a hot streak that actually started before he ascended from Pawtucket?

Only time will tell, of course. And, fighting to fend off the Rays atop the AL East, the answer is irrelevant to the Red Sox for as long as some semblance of the production remains. However, looking at what he's done over these last 11 games may lend some clues as to how long that might be and how legitimate his numbers are.

And based on one previously problematic area in particular, there's reason to think Middlebrooks has adapted and improved. Despite what he may say.

Before being called up earlier this month, the third baseman was brutal when the opposing pitcher got ahead of him. He was hitting .103 when behind in the count; .115 when the count began 0-and-2; and .157 when the count got to 1-2. Basically, once a pitcher gained the upper hand the at-bat was practically over.

Middlebrooks didn't appear to make major gains as far as being better in those predicaments at Triple-A, either. He went just 10-for-52 when hitting behind in the count, and with just three extra-base hits, his OPS was a meager .519 in those situations.

Yet since his promotion, which came in the midst of an eight-game Triple-A hitting streak, Middlebrooks has been markedly better when batting in deeper and more disadvantageous counts. Particularly over the past week, when he's really started to look like a middle-of-the-order option again, rather than overmatched and overwhelmed once his adversary gained the edge. Consider a few related scenarios:

BEHIND IN THE COUNT
Timeframe AVG H AB 2B HR OBP SLG OPS K%
Before Aug. 10 .10376840.116.162.27836.2
Since Aug. 10.42961412.400.9291.32920.0

Speaking to his being more comfortable in the situation -- and perhaps more confident -- Middlebrooks has just one fewer hit from behind in the count since his recall than he did before, despite having 54 fewer opportunities. He's also slugged a couple of home runs on 0-1 counts, victimizing C.C. Sabathia and Barry Zito after not homering at all when down in the count during his first foray this season. Even last year, when Middlebrooks generally succeeded, he hit just three homers in 97 plate appearances ended with the pitcher ahead.

AFTER FALLING BEHIND 0-AND-1
Timeframe AVG H AB 2B HR OBP SLG OPS K%
Before Aug. 10 .1571811562.157.261.41735.7
Since Aug. 10.46771522.4381.0001.43813.3

Prior to his stint at Triple-A, getting Middlebrooks out was as simple as getting the first pitch past him. Some of his improvement here is surely a byproduct of his good fortune on balls in play -- he's hitting .556 since, compared to .222 before -- though the rate at which he's driving the ball, reflected by the disparity in slugging percentage, suggests a degree of improvement.

AFTER FALLING BEHIND 0-AND-2
Timeframe AVG H AB 2B HR OBP SLG OPS K%
Before Aug. 10 .11576130.115.164.27950.8
Since Aug. 10.3332610.333.500.83333.3

He's only been pressed into this position six times since he's been back, so it doesn't show much -- but early in the year he ultimately struck out more than half the time he fell two strikes behind. Thus far, at least, he's not giving at-bats away. Among the six occasions, he's battled three times to points a pitcher was forced to expel five, six, or seven pitches.

AFTER FALLING BEHIND 1-AND-2
Timeframe AVG H AB 2B HR OBP SLG OPS K%
Before Aug. 15 .157138350.167.217.38446.4
Since Aug. 15.4293710.556.5711.12711.1

We put the dividing line here at Aug. 15 because Middlebrooks has fallen behind 1-and-2 in nine of his last 21 plate appearances -- and the fight he's shown in those circumstances is encouraging. He didn't draw a single walk after falling behind 1-and-2 in the initial 84 times he did so, though he's worked two free passes in the past week. He's reached base more than three times as frequently, and striking out about a fourth as much. In fact, since his return he's less likely to strike out after stumbling into a 1-and-2 hole (11.1 percent) than he is in other situations (17.6 percent).

AHEAD IN THE COUNT
Timeframe AVG H AB 2B HR OBP SLG OPS K%
Before Aug. 10 .292144827.417.7711.18811.5
Since Aug. 10.58371220.706.7501.4560.0

We point these out to show how dangerous Middlebrooks has been when hitting ahead in the count -- and those opportunities should come more often as he reestablishes himself as an offensive threat, and as pitchers are forced to reckon with the idea that they can't put him away by getting ahead early.

Again, it remains to be seen if all this is for real. It's only 11 games, only 43 plate appearances, and his BABIP is an unsustainable .500 over that stretch. He's still seeing roughly 3.9 pitches per plate appearances, which is actually down from where it was early in the year, and so there are reasons to believe him when Middlebrooks says he's maintained the same approach.

But there are even more reasons to think that whatever has changed since June has indeed been for the better.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE
Red Sox 12, Giants 1
Hitters
12-for-39, 3 BB, 8 K, 4 2B, 2 HR
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF 3-for-4, 2 R, SB, 2B: His 14th multi-hit game moved him to .299 for the year, and his major-league leading 46th steal made him the second player to swipe that many in 50 attempts or fewer.
Shane Victorino, RF 3-for-5, R, RBI, 2B, K: The boxscore doesn't show that one of his hits came when Brandon Belt failed to touch base in his first try after Barry Zito fielded a bunt, and another came when Belt let a pop drop in the shallow outfield. But, hey, they all count.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, 2 2B: His first game with mutliple extra-base hits since May 31 gave him 30 doubles for the sixth time in his seven big-league seasons. Last year it took him 110 games to get there; this year it was 128.
David Ortiz, DH 0-for-3, 2 K: It was not a good series for Ortiz, who finished 0-for-5 after griping about how tired and sore his body was Monday. He left Wednesday with back tightness the Sox say (and had better hope) is minor.
Jonny Gomes, LF 1-for-4, R, 2 RBI, BB, 3 K: On top of the single that turned a 3-1 lead into a 5-1 lead, he made a nice catch on a ball slicing away from him in left. His UZR says Gomes would cost the Sox 10.1 runs if he played 150 games in left, but the eye test implies he's better than that.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C 1-for-4, 2 R, 2 RBI, BB: He delivered a backbreaking two-run single in his 100th game -- and with the way he's going at the plate, the question of how long he can keep it up is becoming increasingly important. Because he's starting to look like an indispensable piece of the lineup.
Stephen Drew, SS 1-for-5, R, 3 RBI, HR: The Red Sox leader in RBIs this month? With 14, that'd be Drew, who's also just one behind Ortiz for the team lead in home runs.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B 1-for-3, 2 R, 2 RBI, BB, HR: In his first try at second base he also looked like a natural when pivoting to turn a double play -- which is no small detail, given what that versatility could mean as far as including Xander Bogaerts instead of Brock Holt on a prospective playoff roster.
Felix Doubront, P 0-for-3, K: He got one less chance at bat than did Ellsbury -- yet he managed to see three more pitches, 15-12.
Pitchers
9 IP, ER, 5 H, BB, 3 K, HR
Felix Doubront, SP 8 IP, ER, 5 H, BB, 3 K: The afternoon began with a line drive back up the box nearly hitting him in a bad spot, but Doubront made it through there, and subsequently when on to pitch as many innings as he had in his two previous starts combined. His ERA is back down to 3.79 for the season (21st among AL qualifiers).
Koji Uehara, RP 1 IP, K: He was brought on to get some work ahead of Thursday's off-day and, well, he was on the mound, at least. Calling six pitches "work" might be a stretch, but when they're all well-placed strikes, it makes things easy.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes Boston.com's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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