Going back to August of last year, Will Middlebrooks hasn’t JUST been bad at the plate – he’s been ambitiously bad. While it’s an admittedly small sample we’re dealing with here, WMB is hitting an awful .165/.286/.387 over that stretch and has managed to strike out in exactly 26% of his PA’s since last July.
To make matters worse, pitchers have seemingly caught onto the fact that he’s not very good at hitting anything away and down/middle in the zone. In fact, a look at his heat maps below draws almost a yin and yang of what WMB can and can’t do at the plate right now. Over that time, he’s been exceptionally bad at hitting both changeups (-1.5 wCH) and sliders (-2.35 wSL) – especially against LHP who seem all too comfortable to spot their pitches on the bottom corner of the strike zone against him. That’s playing those MLB baseball odds well.
Again, while we’re dealing with a relatively small sample here of 84 PA’s, there are strong indications that there may be something more to this slump than meets the eye. He was pounding more pitches into the dirt as last season progressed and we’ve seen a three-month decline (dating back to last year) in his LD% (25%, 21.7%, 20.6%). It seems that his ability to fall back on his power is somewhat waning in spite of outbursts like the one we saw in Toronto two weeks ago.
More importantly, I appears that Major League hurlers have figured Middlebrooks out and are making him pay to an extreme degree – with his only successes coming against pitchers making mistakes high in the zone. In order for improvement to occur, he’s going to have to make some adjustments. We’ve seen them to a degree this season – as he’s hitting more balls in the air as opposed to swinging down on them, but he’s yet to see the results.
Still, in spite of all the bad news and troubling trends, there’s also a lot of evidence that suggests that he’s going to be just fine.
While there are obvious cracks in the armor, Middlebrooks is still an extremely talented hitter who may quietly be making substantial improvements at the plate, even if the picture looks worrisome on the surface. Not only is his SwStr% headed in the right direction, but he’s also making a lot more contact in general – something that’s going to have to happen in order for him to hold up his traditionally gaudy BABIP. Given the fact that that very same BABIP is sitting at an extremely low .194 in spite of his surging contact rates, one can only figure that regression to the mean isn’t very far off. Simply put – Middlebrooks’ struggles have far less to do with his perceived poor plate approach and far more to do with plain, old bad luck.
In fact, the idea that Middlebrooks lacks discipline at the plate on the whole – or that he’s incapable of making adjustments – is becoming an increasingly dated argument. Largely overlooked last year amidst his promotion and subsequent success at the MLB level was his shocking improvements in both his BB% and his K% at the Minor League Level. In 2011, Middlebrooks struck out 27% of the time in 472 PA’s between AA Portland and AAA Pawtucket. In 2012 his K% improved 9 points during his stint in the minors, suggesting that he was, in fact – able to improve his approach at the plate. Even during his promotion to the Majors, he managed to keep his strikeouts a full 4% below his career averages to that date, suggesting that the progress he made was very real.
While last year’s spike was certainly the largest of his career, it’s remained consistent with his development over the years in the minors. At nearly every level, Middlebrooks has adapted and managed to improve his plate approach, which leaves little reason to think that he can’t do the same at the game’s highest level. With that in mind, it’s probably best that we retire the “Will Middlebrooks lacks plate discipline” meme and replace it with “Will Middlebrooks lacks refinement at the plate” instead. His track record suggests that he’ll experience some challenges at first. They also indicate that he’ll improve.
And if he improves, he’ll do some serious damage.
What’s more is that even if his plate approach doesn’t improve all that much in coming weeks and months, his low BABIP still won’t hold because his raw skill set and Home Park probably won’t allow it to. While it’s true that Middlebrooks had a high BABIP last year, it’s also true that he has a high BABIP every year. In fact, most batters who hit the ball harder tend to maintain consistently higher BABIP’s than their peers. While Middlebrooks may be lacking in some areas, power certainly isn’t one of them. Even though he’s not the most fleet of foot (running is almost always a strong indictor of someone who’ll sustain a higher than normal BABIP), he has the power to hit a lot of line drives and the convenience of the green monster to knock them off of that will likely help him not only turn his luck around in the short term, but sustain his usually BABIP heading forward, as well.
So while there’s certainly some room for concern about his overall performance, it’s far too soon to start sticking up red flags or get too caught up in worry at this point. The timing of the extended slump isn’t great – and I’m sure we’ll hear more whispers about his wrist’s health among other things if this continues. But do yourselves a favor and stick it out with Middlebrooks. Trust me, it’ll be worth it. He should be back to waking and raking in no time.