FORT MYERS, Fla. — Will Middlebrooks was a tourist at spring training last year, there to experience life as a major leaguer for a few weeks before returning to minor league camp.
Now he is the starting third baseman for the Red Sox and a hitter expected to provide production in the middle of the lineup. Middlebrooks showed power last season with 15 home runs and 14 doubles in 267 at-bats.
But he also struck out 70 times and had an on-base percentage of .325. That’s above league average, but just by a few points. It’s one aspect of his game Middlebrooks wants to improve on. The question is how best to blend the aggressive approach at the plate that has served him well to this point with more patience in certain situations.
“I’m very aggressive, that’s the player I am,” he said. “I’m never going to walk a lot. Am I going to strike out? Yeah. But I’m going to get my money’s worth because I’m not up there to hit singles. I’m up there to drive in runs and use the park to my advantage.”
Plate discipline is not something that can be learned by watching video or working in the cage. As much as the 24-year-old Middlebrooks enjoys talking about hitting with teammates Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, only experience will help him become more selective.
“The greatest teacher we have is right between the lines,” manager John Farrell said. “We can talk about it, we can emphasize some certain things. But there’s always that fine balance and a delicate line that hitters will walk without becoming too passive. That comes with at-bats and maturity.”
Middlebrooks does not have a statistical goal in mind. To him, a good slugging percentage is more important than a high on-base percentage. For this particular Red Sox team, that may be especially true.
“I want to have discipline in my approach,” he said. “But if I see four pitches in a game and get three hits, what is wrong with that? If I stick with my approach and get the pitch I was looking for and I did what I was supposed to, that is what counts.
“Yes, ideally, you want to make the starter work hard and get into the bullpen. But driving in a run can do that, too. You can look at it both ways.”
Middlebrooks hit .179 on changeups last season, the only pitch that really gave him trouble. Pitchers threw him 137 and he swung and missed 30 times. Only seven swings produced hits.
A bigger issue was location.
Middlebrooks hammered pitches inside and up and over the plate. But pitches down the middle — even fastballs — were curiously troublesome. Middlebrooks saw 77 pitches right over the plate and had six hits.
“I usually don’t swing at the first pitch, and sometimes that hurt me,” he said. “Pitchers were going after me when I first came up.”
Middlebrooks hit .206 on pitches down and away. That is something he will work on this spring, either to lay off those pitches or tailor his swing to cover the entire plate.
“My biggest thing was that I would get overaggressive early in the count,” he said. “If the pitcher gives me something good early, I probably wasn’t going to get something else. I need to realize that they’re human beings and they can make mistakes. That was when I needed to be patient.
“I can get better. I know I need to. David and I will go watch video together. He points out a lot of things that I don’t know. But mostly what I need is experience and just seeing pitchers.”
New Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn called Middlebrooks soon after getting the job in November.
“When he’s driving the ball to right-center, that’s special,” said Colbrunn. “The way the ball comes off his bat is unique. He’s advanced for being a young kid.
“The success he had in this atmosphere impressed me, plus he’s very grounded. Watching him on video, you see how good he is.”
Colbrunn will work with Middlebrooks on deciphering how pitchers go after him.
“It’s tricky,” said Colbrunn. “You want him to be aggressive and not get too much in his thought process. You want the aggressiveness to be harnessed. Get him to a point to where he’s in a good hitter’s count. Maybe it’s the third pitch or fourth pitch.
“The big thing is for him to get to know the pitchers and how they’re going to attack him. As he sees pitchers for the fourth, fifth, and sixth time, he’ll learn how they want to pitch him.”
Colbrunn spent the last six seasons in Single A Charleston, five of them as a hitting coach. Last season, Middlebrooks was one of the players Colbrunn used as an example to his hitters.
In 2009, when he played for Greenville in the South Atlantic League, Middlebrooks had seven home runs.
“I saw the athletic ability and the swing, but he was still learning,” Colbrunn said. “It was just a matter of time and experience.”
Middlebrooks hit 12 homers the following season then 23 in 2011. The adjustments were made, each year better than the last.
“I realize I need to keep working,” said Middlebrooks. “That has been made very clear to me. One thing I learned last year is that you can’t be too happy. I like the aspect of trying to learn more as a hitter. Now that I’m here, I can’t stop doing that.”