From “Will the Thrill” to “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Won’t.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks is back on the disabled list, this time with a broken finger that he suffered trying to field a ball hit by Detroit’s Ian Kinsler Friday night. It’s the fourth trip in three seasons for Middlebrooks, who should get the key to the DL’s Tim Naehring Suite really soon if this keeps up.
Actually, Naehring is a fairly good comparison for Middlebrooks, the young, brash athlete who has started his baseball career much like the oft-injured former Boston infielder. Unlike Naehring, when he’s on the field, Middlebrooks has turned into a puddle of his brief flash of potential.
Middlebrooks’ second trip to the DL this season likely came just ahead of his demotion to Pawtucket, as he was hitting only .197 with two home runs, providing nary a whiff of the power the Red Sox figured he’d contribute if nothing else. His .629 OPS ranks 15th among AL third basemen, just ahead of All-Stars Marcus Semien, Ian Stewart, and Carlos Santana. For sure, Middlebrooks is a gaping hole in a Boston lineup that has already become an increasingly maddening failure to produce runs.
It’s a far cry from Middlebrooks’ encouraging rookie season when he slammed 15 home runs in 75 games and gave Bobby Valentine and Ben Cherington a convenient excuse to trade veteran Kevin Youkilis. But since Youkilis was traded to the White Sox on June 24, 2012. Middlebrooks has hit a grand total of 24 home runs over parts of three seasons with the Red Sox. His rookie season was cut short when was hit in the wrist by a fastball, he spent more time in Pawtucket than Boston last season, flirting with the Red Sox cheerleader from afar. He was a complete non-factor in last year’s postseason, manager John Farrell’s lack of faith giving Xander Bogaerts the opportunity to shine. And as if it couldn’t get worse for Middlebrooks, well, welcome to 2014.
Middlebrooks’ latest injury could sideline him for up to a month, which means by the time he’s ready to return, the Red Sox may have already welcomed back Stephen Drew and moved Bogaerts to third, meaning Middlebrooks’ rehab at McCoy will last more than only a handful of games.
Drew won’t cure the black hole the Red Sox bats are becoming after David Ortiz, but at least he’d provide some semblance of consistency, a word that applies to Middlebrooks as well as charisma does to Drew’s personality.
While Brock Holt fills in at third, it’s clear that it’s with the assumption that a lawn chair could do the job as well as Middlebrooks managed this year, and it might even be better diving to its left. For sure, the Red Sox’ patience with Middlebrooks has to be thinner than ever. If it leads them back to chasing Drew before or after the draft – when teams won’t have to surrender a draft pick, and the shortstop can get a real feel on other offers – their appreciation will be noted by giving Middlebrooks a summer trip to lovely Pawtucket. That’ll mean less Jenny Dell for Will, but hey, more Del’s Lemonade.
For what it’s worth, Middlebrooks has shown a more measured approach this season at the plate, where he used to chase pitches like Wimpy chases cheeseburgers. As “Over the Monster” points out, “Middlebrooks is swinging at 27.7 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, the lowest of his career by a margin of 1.6 percent.”
While Middlebrooks has swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, he has also not made as much contact with them, hitting only 53.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, nine percent lower than the second lowest total. At the same time, Middlebrooks is also making more contact with pitches in the strike zone, getting wood on 88.9 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, five percentage points higher than the next highest total. Overall, Middlebrooks is making contact at the highest rate of his career; at 76.6 percent….While Middlebrooks’ contact rate is at a career high, Middlebrooks’ BABIP is not at a fluky low number, despite his average being below the Mendoza. At the moment, Middlebrooks’ BABIP is at .267, higher than his total last season, while below his .335 BABIP in his rookie season. Despite his BABIP being at just about the same percentage as last year, Middlebrooks’ average is nearly 25 percentage points below his batting average in 2013. So to say that Middlebrooks’ slump this year is a function of bad luck would likely be false, as is his BABIP is the same as last year’s totals.
How patient the Sox tend to be with Middlebrooks going forward is anyone’s guess. The aforementioned Naehring played an average of only 47 games in his first five seasons in Boston (although the 80 games he played in 1994 were more indicative of the players’ strike than injury), but the production he delivered when healthy was so tantalizing that the Red Sox kept waiting for his health to no longer be a deterrent. During his eight-year career, Naehring got on base to a .365 percentage, including a career-high .415 in 1995, the first season he played in more than 100 games (126) after the Sox traded corner incumbent Scott Cooper to St. Louis for Rheal Cormier and Mark Whiten, which paved the way for Naehring’s full-time stint at third base. Naehring hit 10 home runs for the AL East champs that year, 17 the following year when he played in 116 games with an .808 OPS. In 1997, he went on the disabled list in June, his seventh trip. By 1998, he was out of baseball. He was 30 years old.
Middlebrooks is three stints away from catching him at age 25. The team won’t be as accommodating this time around.
If all this in some way affects Middlebrooks’ confidence, then the result is two-fold; some might say his opinion of himself needed a splash of humility, but it’s also of some wonder how much of that trait had to do with his burst on the scene in the first place. Had Drew accepted the Sox’ qualifying offer in the offseason, Middlebrooks would be mired in Triple-A this season, which may have been the better avenue for the Sox in any case were they hoping to make a deal for him. For sure, if Middlebrooks’ trade value was suspect coming off last October, it’s absolutely plummeted during the 21 games he’s managed to play this season.
And so, for now, it’s the Brock Holt show at third. Apparently, Ryan Roberts was busy this time.
The Red Sox are coming off a sweep at the hands of the rolling Detroit Tigers, and concerns about the offense (Boston managed to score three runs against Tigers pitching) have only blossomed. Losing Middlebrooks isn’t exactly an immediate death knell, but this could be the crossroads that he dreaded. He’s proven to be a frustrating commodity, and one in which the Sox might be ready to surrender hope.
You “can’t make the club in the tub,” but you can’t expect to stick around with it either the way Middlebrooks has looked this season. Adrian Beltre may not be walking through that door, but it’s clear if Middlebrooks doesn’t improve his performance when he returns, somebody – anybody — else probably will be.