Will Middlebrooks And Walks

Does Will Middlebrooks need to walk more to bring value to the Red Sox?

“I’m very aggressive, that’s the player I am. I’m never going to walk a lot. Am I going to strike out? Yeah. But I’m going to get my money’s worth because I’m not up there to hit singles. I’m up there to drive in runs and use the park to my advantage.”

Such were the words uttered by one Will Middlebrooks to one Peter Abraham during an interview last week. And if you’re a fan familiar with how the Red Sox have constructed their offense over the past decade, those words might bother you.

Odds are you’ve seen this statistic, but the Red Sox finished 22nd in the majors with a .315 on-base percentage in 2012. This comes after leading the league in 2011, finishing third in 2010, second in 2009 and first in 2008. It’s an area of significant concern for a club that just lost an OBP-machine in Adrian Gonzalez, plans on giving Jarrod Saltalamacchia 400 PA and has question marks in left field.

If you look closely at Will Middlebrooks' most recent quotes, the underlying message is positive. Photo by Kelly O'Connor, sittingstill.net.

If you look closely at Will Middlebrooks’ most recent quotes, the underlying message is positive. Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.net.

So when Middlebrooks, perhaps the most promising young piece of the “next great Red Sox team” already in the majors, seems to eschew the importance of OBP, it’s easy to assume the worst. Is this a young player refusing to adjust to the league? Does it signal a change in the way the Red Sox value offense?

I’d wager neither, and there are plenty of reasons why.

First, let’s start with Middlebrooks and his comments and outlook on his production. Some of the other quotes he gave to Abraham suggest not a resistance to change, but rather an understanding of his role on the team. Look at three other quotes from the same piece:

“I want to have discipline in my approach. But if I see four pitches in a game and get three hits, what is wrong with that? If I stick with my approach and get the pitch I was looking for and I did what I was supposed to, that is what counts.”

“Yes, ideally, you want to make the starter work hard and get into the bullpen. But driving in a run can do that, too. You can look at it both ways.”

“My biggest thing was that I would get overaggressive early in the count. If the pitcher gives me something good early, I probably wasn’t going to get something else. I need to realize that they’re human beings and they can make mistakes. That was when I needed to be patient.”

When you read Middlebrooks’ full comments – especially in the context of the piece – that doesn’t seem like a stubborn young player at all: rather, it seems like a young hitter who knows he’s relied upon for his power and ability to drive in runs, and he’d rather be selective than outright “patient.”

That’s a tough concept to grasp, but one Marc Normandin of Over The Monster did beautifully in this piece he wrote on Middlebrooks’ perceived patience issues back in August. You should read the whole piece, but the basic point Normandin makes is that Middlebrooks is selective in what he chooses to swing at, he’s just not going to see an insane number of pitches per game as he does so.

When you think of pitchers per plate appearance (P/PA), the first player who generally comes to mind is Kevin Youkilis, right? Well, even Youkilis has admitted that early in his career, he was indeed too passive. For example, he led the league in P/PA in 2006 at a stunning 4.43, but slugged just .429. Two years later, in what was perhaps his best season, Youkilis saw his P/PA fall to 4.02 – just 18th in the league – but slugged .569 and actually posted a higher OBP as well.

That’s a specific and extreme case, but the point remains: P/PA is not the end-all, be-all of patience at the plate, and power hitters especially need to maintain a certain level of aggressiveness to drive balls they think they can get to very far away.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that Middlebrooks doesn’t have some work to do when it comes to getting on base. He posted fairly pedestrian OBPs in A+ in 2010 and across several levels in 2011, and his .325 mark in the majors last year was decent, but also driven by a .335 BABIP. (Yes, Normandin’s piece makes the argument that Middlebrooks’ high OBPs in the minors will portend similar MLB results, but I have more reservations.)

It was obvious to the naked eye that Middlebrooks struggled with breaking pitches at points in 2012, and statistical evidence supports that he had trouble with sliders and changeups, albeit in a limited sample. He was plagued by questions surrounding his approach and hit tool all throughout his career as a prospect, and while his 2012 season should be viewed as a positive by any measure, they didn’t necessarily quell those concerns.

If you look at three projections for the upcoming season, it’s clear that Middlebrooks’ approach is a concern to many.

System

K%

BB%

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

PECOTA

-

-

590

.258

.298

.450

25

Bill James

22.5

5.0

565

.277

.316

.490

29

Oliver

25.2

6.6

484

.265

.318

.479

22

Bill James is notoriously optimistic in his player predictions, but I have to admit that’s more along the lines of what I’m expecting from Middlebrooks in 2013, albeit perhaps with a bit less power (especially given the wrist injury). The PECOTA projection is particularly harsh, and it seems hard to believe that Middlebrooks won’t get on base at at least a .300 clip. That’s not to say the PECOTA outcome is unfathomable, but rather than based on what I know of and have seen from Middlebrooks, I think he’ll be able to adjust enough to keep his OBP out of the embarrassing range.

Those expecting Middlebrooks to turn into a star may be disappointed, but for anyone keeping reasonable expectations for the 24-year-old, 2013 should be an exciting glimpse into the type of player we can expect Middlebrooks to be in the long run.

In all likelihood. he will always strike out too much and he’ll never be an OBP-machine, but he’ll be a consistently above average defensive third baseman, a threat to hit for 25 homers and an ideal No. 5 hitter for years to come.

And he won’t need to see 4.5 P/PA to do so.

Categories: Bill James Boston Red Sox Jarrod Saltalamacchia Kevin Youkilis Will Middlebrooks

Ben is a graduate of Boston University with a degree in journalism and a love of all things Red Sox and minor league baseball. He has experience writing for Baseball Prospectus, NESN, RotoExperts, BU Today and other sites, and typically serves as an in-house MiLB writer. An editor for a business website by day, Ben likes to grill, sample IPAs and re-read Faulkner novels by night. He is an unabashed J.D. Drew apologist with a deep-seated fear of middle relievers. Follow Ben on Twitter here.

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