To get a sense for the amount of confidence manager John Farrell has for third baseman Will Middlebrooks at the moment, there is no need to look further than the bottom of the seventh inning in Friday night's 1-0 loss to the Tigers. With men on first and second, Farrell decided to pinch hit A.J. Pierzynski for Middlebrooks, opting for the 37-year-old catcher's .261 average and 3.40 pitches per plate appearances, among the worst totals in the majors for catchers.
It was only two years ago that Middlebrooks was the highly heralded third base prospect who took longtime fan-favorite Kevin Youkilis' job and took the majors by storm when he hit .288 with 15 home runs, 54 RBI in just 286 plate appearances. At that point, Middlebrooks looked like a player who could be manning the hot corner for the Red Sox for years to come.
Just two short years later, Middlebrooks is hitting .197 with two home runs, nine RBI and a .305 on-base percentage. There is no sugar coating this: Will Middlebrooks is playing like one of the worst third baseman in baseball right now. His 0.0 WAR (as calculated by FanGraphs), places him in the company of Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Jonathan Schoop.
Middlebrooks showed the ability to hit well at the plate, but is doing anything but at the moment. Many have been clamoring for the Red Sox to demote Middlebrooks down to Pawtucket, an idea that has to be at least crossed the minds of general manager Ben Cherington and Farrell. Middlebrooks has been especially bad at the plate in the month of May, hitting just .167 with four RBI, no extra base hits, three runs, fifteen strikeouts and five walks in 48 plate appearances.
Unlike last year's struggles, however, Middlebrooks' issues this season are much harder to pinpoint and identify.
Whereas last year, the third baseman struggled to hit balls on the outer half of the plate, with an emphasis on breaking balls, this season, pitchers have thrown more fastballs to Middlebrooks than he has seen previously in his career. Middlebrooks is currently seeing 58.4% fastballs in his at-bats, an increase from the 52.7% in 2012 and 55.1%.
At the same time, Middlebrooks' plate disciplined has seemingly improved as the 25-year-old has displayed more patience at the plate. Middlebrooks is swinging at 27.7% of pitches outside of the strike zone, the lowest of his career by a margin of 1.6%.
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% of pitches outside of the strike zone, nine percent lower than the second lowest total. At the same time, Middlebrooks is also making more contract with pitches in the strike zone, getting wood on 88.9% 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%.
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 years' totals.
If Middlebrooks is not unlucky, is he striking out at a higher percentage? At the moment, Middlebrooks' strike out rate is just over one percentage point (27.5%) higher than his strikeout rate (26.2%) last year. One percentage point in strikeout does not quantify for more than a 20 percentage point drop in batting average.
The most interesting statistical points comes after a look at Middlebrooks' power statistics. While Middlebrooks' line drive percentage remains in line with career averages, Middlebrooks; in-field fly ball percentage has nearly quadrupled to 21.1%, more than twice the league average of 10%. In addition, Middlebrooks' HR/FB ratio, which was at 21.4% in his rookie season (a number in line with good power hitters), now sits at 10.5%, more in line with average power hitters.
Middlebrooks' main tool at the plate is his power and his display in 2014 has shown none of it. While it's hard to delineate Middlebrooks' drop in power as the main reason for his precipitous drop in production, many of the 25-year-old's other hitting statistics fall in line with career averages.