Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
Will Middlebrooks is having a rookie season that, in any other year, would be considered excellent. But the focus has been more on what he's not doing.
Supposedly, the problem with Will Middlebrooks is that he doesn't walk enough, and without walks, he won't survive in the majors as a productive player. The thinking is that he isn't patient enough, and opposing pitchers are going to eat him up the more they see of him, unless there is a drastic change in his approach. While there's absolutely truth to the idea that Middlebrooks will need to adjust to how pitchers adapt to him, that's no different than what every other major-league hitter goes through. Plus, Will Middlebrooks is patient.
Let's rewind for a moment, to 2011, when a different rookie was tasked with replacing an injured and important part of the Red Sox lineup. Josh Reddick became Boston's regular right fielder -- insomuch as one existed at all last season -- when J.D. Drew ended up missing over 60 games in the season's last three months. Reddick hit an above-average for right .280/.327/.457 with above-average defense in a tough corner, but there was more talk about what he wasn't doing than what he managed to accomplish. Every time he struck out on a tough breaking ball, or swung on a pitch he could have sat on, it was all about how Reddick is just too impatient to play in the majors and succeed with that approach.
Reddick was succeeding, though, as evidenced by the line he put up over 87 games and 278 plate appearances, and he was patient, too, as he saw 3.8 pitches per plate appearance. That's not going to get him confused with Kevin Youkilis any time soon, but he wasn't the kind of player he was made out to be. No, that kind of player was Randall Simon, who couldn't stick in the majors as a productive piece in the long-term, because he saw closer to three pitches per plate appearance during years that should have been his peak.
Reddick fouled off pitch after pitch, and didn't punch out as often as the groans would have you think he did: he struck out just 18 percent of the time in 2011. That's how he extended his plate appearances, and waited for the pitch he knew he could do something with. As he's become more dangerous and experienced of a hitter in 2012, his walks and power have both risen, and now he's recognized as a legitimate offensive force. Quite a step up in a year for a guy who wasn't supposed to succeed without a drastic change in patience. As he's just under four pitches per plate appearance now, there's been a change, albeit not a drastic one, but he's still thriving -- turns out that maybe it was analysts (and hey, maybe the Red Sox, though we don't know their attitude towards Reddick) who needed to be significantly more patient.
Middlebrooks is in something of the same situation. He walks a little less often than Reddick, and strikes out a bit more, but he's also 23 with fewer than 300 MLB plate appearances to his credit, whereas Reddick is now 25 with nearly 900 on his. Overall, though, the idea is the same: Middlebrooks doesn't draw a ton of walks (just 4.7 percent of plate appearances have ended with a free trip to first in 2012), but he isn't impatient. In fact, he's seeing 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, and has the second-lowest strikeout rate he's produced with an extended stay at any professional level.
Just because he doesn't walk doesn't mean he lacks patience. Middlebrooks has tremendous plate coverage, and he uses that to his advantage. He'll take a walk when it's offered up, but Middlebrooks' goal when he comes to the plate is to force the pitcher to throw a pitch he'll regret, one that the third baseman can drive. If you think his current .339 batting average on balls in play is an aberration, take a look at his minor-league BABIP from year-to-year. (This ignores short rehab assignments, as well as his brief finish to 2011 in Pawtucket):
See a pattern? Minor-league BABIP tends to be higher at the lower levels, as pitchers aren't as refined, and defenses are at their professional worst. But a .333 mark in Triple-A is still huge, as is a .363 showing at Double-A. That Middlebrooks has been able to bring his high-BABIP ways to the majors in his rookie season is no real surprise -- he tailors his approach to these kinds of results.
He'll likely have to add a little bit of patience to his game, a la 2012 Reddick, in order to adjust to pitchers that figure out how to exploit him. But he's not a broken product that's lucked out, one waiting for the shoe of impatience to drop and ruin his numbers, just because he's drawing walks five percent of the time. He's a promising young hitter, succeeding in the same way he has at every level, and while there have been bumps in the road, he's also still sporting a .282/.327/.519 line with 15 homers despite them. There's a great chance that if Middlebrooks just adjusts to the little things, and keeps doing what got him to the majors in the first place, that everything will be just fine.