Will Middlebrooks: Power, Walks, BABIP and Sustainability

BOSTON, MA: Will Middlebrooks #64 of the Boston Red Sox hits a grand slam in the fifth inning to tie the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Following the trade of Kevin Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox, Will Middlebrooks is now free. He is free to play every day without looking over his shoulder and free of questions about whether or not he will be in the line up. There will be plenty of people trumpeting this the dawn of the new day, but, like my colleague Matthew Kory, I have reservations. Essentially, all of my fears can be summed up in a few simple numbers.

PA

Walk Rate

Strikeout Rate

ISO

BABIP

Will Middlebrooks

156

5.1 %

23.7 %

.257

.380

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Will Middlebrooks and I believe strongly in his future. However, in light of strikeout rate, walk rate and that remarkably high BABIP, I am not too sure I believe in his current .326/.365/.583 nearly as much.My question is- Can Will Middlebrooks sustain this elite level of performance? The knee-jerk reaction would be to simply say no, he is getting lucky and that will change. There is more to the story in this case, however, and Middlebrooks success is more sustainable than the numbers above may lead people to believe.

Of course, over a career, a batting average on balls in play of .380 is unsustainable. Well, it’s unsustainable unless you are Ty Cobb. I am going to go out on a limb and say that Will Middlebrooks is not Ty Cobb. That’s probably a good thing. Over a single season, a .380 BABIP could happen (Adrian Gonzalez had a .380 last season), but it isn’t something that we should expect or something that Middlebrooks can control to a sizable degree. In fact, Fangraphs’ Paul Swydan notes that Middlebrooks expected BABIP is just .321, based on his line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates. That regression would drop his batting average to a still very solid .291, but it would deflate his OBP to a very average .320. With Youkilis hitting .233/.315/.377, the difference in batting average and power are far greater than the difference in OBP.

However, Middlebrooks is not just hitting for some power. He is sporting elite power with that .257 ISO and a crazy good 23.7% HR/FB rate. Just 15 players in the game with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting have better ISOs than Middlebrooks, who would be tied with (oh God, no) Josh Reddick for 16th in the category if he had mroe At bats. While a .380 BABIP may not be sustainable, for Middlebrooks, the real question is whether or not his power is sustainable. Between 2008 and 2011, 53 players posted seasons with an ISO over .250, including Youkilis (2008) David Ortiz (2010) Manny Rameriz (2008) and JasonBay (2009). It may be rare but it is not an unachievable mark.

Slightly more problematic is the HR/FB rate. 23.7% HR/FB may not be the most sustainable rate, even for an elite power hitter. In the same time, just 10 players posted seasons with a HR/FB rate over 23% and only Ryan Howard did it twice. Even a rate over 20% is hard to come by, with just 38 total seasons. In all likely, Will Middlebrooks is going to come to earth at some point this season with respect to his BABIP and HR/FB rate. That doesn’t mean he is going to suddenly become an offensive black hole.

There is one very positive sign for Middlebrooks that could temper his regression, however. For all his reputation as a hacker, Will Middlebrooks has been fairly selective at the plate, He has swung at a below average 27.8% of pitches out of the zone and even his swing rate in the zone is below average at 42.5%. In the zone, his contact rate is basically average, but with a very weak 57.7% contact rate out of the zone, Middlebrooks is vulnerable deep in counts.

Given that, there is something really strange and really interesting about Middlebrooks’ power and the lack of walks. Of those 38 players who posted seasons with a HR/FB rate over 20%, no one had a walk rate as low as Middlebrooks. In fact, of the players with that incredible level of power, just three have posted below average walk rates, Josh Hamilton (7.5%) Carlos Gonzalez in 2010, (6.3%) Michael Morse in 2011(6.3%). Almost everyone else has double digit walk rates. Looking at those three hitters will make you seriously reconsider calling Middlebrooks a hacker. Each one swung at 37% of pitches out of the zone or more. That is an incredible 10% higher than WMB current rate.

This is hardly the most thorough or scientific study of the relationship between power and walks, but I think it is instructive to a degree. If you have eye popping, jaw dropping home run ability, pitchers tend to notice. They tend to fear that and it makes them reluctant to throw the ball in the strike zone. If you are going walk as little as Middlebrooks, you need to be far more enamored with bad pitches than he seems to be. He is a young player and he is still learning. While I think it is very likely that his power will regress some, it should remain pretty elite. His swing is just a thing of beauty. It could be America’s Next Top Model. It belongs on the cover of Maxim, not SI. Botticelli would want paint his swing coming out of clam shell if he were still around. With that swing, pitchers are going to become more reluctant to throw in the zone and he has shown good pitch recognition thus far. He may always be a high strike out guy, but I fully expect a near average walk rate creeping into the picture as well.

Given is numbers, it is fair to say that Will Middlebrooks is due for some regression. That cuts both ways, though. He will probably see some more of his balls in play becoming outs and a few more of his fly balls will fail to clear the walls, but he should also get more free passes boosting his OBP. To say that his success is unsustainable because his BABIP or HR/FB ratio are outliers is too hasty a conclusion, in my opinion, as it overlooks some important pieces of information about his hitting.

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