A well-regarded player coming out of high school in 2007, Will Middlebrooks was lured away from a commitment to Texas A&M by Boston thanks to a nearly $1 million dollar signing bonus. WMB enjoyed two years of fine seasons in 2009 and 2010. It was in 2011, however, that WMB's breakout season occurred, as he put up an excellent .382 .wOBA in double A Portland, before closing the year out with a brief, unproductive stint in Pawtucket.
The next year saw Middlebrooks open the season on fire in AAA, crushing the ball in exactly 100 plate appearances to the tune of a .461 .wOBA. Combined with incumbent third baseman Kevin Youkilis's poor play to begin the year, WMB's path to Boston was inevitable. Youk's injury in May opened the door for WMB to seize the starting job, which he did (helped by Youk's poor relations with manager Bobby Valentine), eventually forcing a Youkilis exit in a hasty trade to the White Sox. WMB put up a very respectable .357 .wOBA before his season was, unfortunately, prematurely ended in August by a broken hand. Now he enters the 2013 season, presumably fully healed from that injury, and ready to play a full season as Boston's starting third baseman.
What does Will Middlebrooks do well?
A former shortstop, Middlebrooks has always been a well regarded fielder. He has a very strong arm, and good range, especially compared to Youkilis. It is highly unlikely that Middlebrooks will be anything but a strong contributor in the field for many years to come, an excellent asset at third base.
Middlebrooks has also, especially in recent years, displayed a great proclivity for the power stroke. In 2011, he slugged .520 with an .ISO of .218, In 2012 in AAA (in a small sample size), that .ISO was highly impressive .344 with a .677 SLG (again, in 100 ABs, but it foreshadowed his major league power success). In the majors, that .ISO was an exceedingly good .213, with a .490 SLG. WMB slammed 15 home runs and 14 doubles in a mere 286 PA. In an era where third baseman tend to be somewhat limited at the plate, WMB's power is a welcome change of pace, and possibly outshines his defense as his greatest ability as a ballplayer.
Will Middlebrooks also maintains a consistently high BABIP. BABIP is a statistic that varies by player. While we may know that it tends to center around .300, it also depends on the batter. Ichiro, famously, has a very high BABIP, due to his speed and ability to break well out of the box. I would submit that, based on his track record, we may tentatively (tentatively!) project WMB to have a slightly higher than normal BABIP, at least while he remains young and enters the prime of his career. While still, of course, subject to luck variations, WMB has put up an average BABIP higher than .340 during all of his extended stints of play, with the exception of his major league debut in 2012.
What does Will Middlebrooks not do well?
Will Middlebrooks does not draw walks well. He has never had an .OBP higher than .349 in a meaningful sample size, that coming back in 2009 in A ball. (To be fair, he put up a .345 OBP during his breakout 2011 campaign, possibly fueled by a .363 BABIP). In the majors, his .OBP was .325, and dropping by month (from .343 in May, to .329 in June, to .314 in July).
This inability to draw walks is likely due to his average pitch recognition skills. Fangraphs provides the average time a batter swung at pitches outside the strike zone in 2012 as 30.4% in the AL. Will Middlebrooks did so 29.3% of the time - very slightly above non-swings. He also swung at pitches in the zone 62.5% of the time - as compared to a 67.4% rate for all 2012 American Leaguers.
In addition, WMB strikes out more than usual. This is, in itself, not a bad feature for a major leaguer. Strike outs tend to be no worse than normal outs. However, it is indicative of worse than average contact skills. In 2012, WMB struck out in nearly a quarter of his at bats, 24.5% (which, incidentally, is his career rate). American League hitters K'd at a 5% lesser rate - 19.3%. Will Middlebrooks makes less contact on all pitches at about a 5% worse rate than the average American leaguer, as well. Sox Prospects noted this in their rankings of WMB, stating:
Needs to learn to be a bit more selective as he progresses through the upper minors. Can over-extend arms during swing, which causes him to be susceptible on the inner third. Must work to improve with hitting inside the baseball in this area to produce average-to-better contact and increase hitting zones.
Will Middlebrooks came onto the major league scene with a bang in May of 2012, hitting .316/.343/.579, with a .400 BABIP. Since then, his numbers progressively worsened until the broken hand ended his season. Even in his worst full month of July, however, he .OPS'd .785 thanks to a high ..471 SLG (with a .378 BABIP).
Thus we must ask ourselves the following questions about MIddlebrooks:
Will his BABIP stay high enough to keep his OBP acceptable?
Can his power and defense outweigh his poor OBP and plate discipline?
I have never been a MIddlebrooks believer, despite his very fun 2012. I view his high BABIPs with some skepticism, and wonder if they will translate in the Majors. His league average at best plate discipline numbers do not necessarily bode well for someone with his excellent power.
However, Middlebrooks is still young, and he still has very valuable skills at third base. He has earned his place as the 2013 starting third baseman. Nevertheless, I fear that if his BABIP craters and he cannot adjust to being better than league average at both recognizing and making contacts with pitches, then he will be only a "good" third baseman with some fine years, rather than a truly superb player.
In my judgment, Will Middlebrooks's best outcome is his June: .288/.329/.507, with an average to below average BABIP of .288. In that month, he was able to maintain himself as a very productive major leaguer, with room for that line to rise to his wonderful May debut. On the other hand, he had an excellent July BABIP and still put up his worst month.
Can WMB make adjustments as the league adjusts to him? Will he ever be a great player?