Following are examples of the havoc Pawtucket Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks has been wreaking on International League pitching this season:
- In Pawtucket’s April 5 season opener at McCoy Stadium, Middlebrooks ripped line-drive doubles on his first two swings in a 4-2 victory over Buffalo.
- He belted a three-run homer at Rochester on April 13 which gave Pawtucket a 4-3 win.
- Middlebrooks duplicated that feat 24 hours later as Pawtucket prevailed, 9-6, at Buffalo.
- During an 11-7 victory at Syracuse on April 19, he slugged another three-run homer and singled.
- His three-run, sixth-inning homer clinched a 15-10 triumph over Durham at McCoy on April 20.
- He went the other way and lined a solo homer just inside the right-field foul pole (the ball bounced off the roof of a concession stand) and later added an RBI single in a 9-5 victory over Durham on 21.
Ironically, the only thing that cooled off Middlebrooks was a torrential downpour which forced postponement of an April 22nd game versus Durham.
Through his first 21 games Middlebrooks was batting .358 replete with nine homers, 27 RBI, a .752 slugging percentage and an off-the-charts 1.162 OPS. Those numbers are in stark contrast to the ones he posted in 16 games last season after he was promoted from Portland to Pawtucket on August 19: a 161 average with only two homers and eight RBI – after hitting .302 with 18 homers and a then-Eastern League leading 80 RBI in 96 games with the Sea Dogs.
“It’s just a matter of confidence and coming in here with a sense of urgency,” Middlebrooks said of his early-season explosion. “I know what I did in the month I was here and I really wanted to make up for it and start off on the right foot.
“I’m here to make a statement. I’m trying to take it one bat at a time and not waste any at-bats, and just stay as focused as I can.”
Saying Middlebrooks isn’t wasting at-bats is like saying the Green Monster is, of course, green. “I think you see how big confidence is for (position) players and pitchers,” said PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler. “But sometimes you get tired during a long season. He got on base at lot last year at Portland and then to come up here and get things going again. It was tough. He felt pressure to come up to the next level and succeed.
“Sometimes it works for guys and sometimes it doesn’t. He went out to the (Arizona) fall league and did a nice job out there (.250/4 HR/ 11 RBI). We got a chance to see what he’s about. He had a good spring and got to the big league camp for the first time and did well there.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen that impresses me is he uses the whole field to hit,” continued Beyeler. “He’s a tough out. The ball really comes off his bat easy.”
Middlebrooks, who bats from the right side, realized early on that being a dead-pull hitter was a recipe for disaster.
“I just feel like pitchers can pick you apart if you’re strong just one way,” he said. “If you’re a dead-pull guy, they can just go away from you.
“I feel if you use the whole field, it makes it harder on those guys.”
Coming into this season, Middlebrooks was rated as Boston’s No. 1 prospect by Baseball America and as having the farm system’s Best Infield Arm for the fifth consecutive year. As a result, the hype has been overwhelming (i.e. Boston sports radio talk shows are rife with callers demanding the Red Sox promote Middlebrooks post haste). But that hasn’t affected his play.
“I like it,” he said. “That pushes me. It fuels the fire. I want to live up to it.
“I’ve told people before that if I was rated the 100th prospect or the first I’d work just as hard.”
Making Boston’s decision regarding what to do with Middlebrooks more intriguing is the fact that incumbent third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who turned 33 in March, has been hampered by injuries in recent seasons. He hit a major league career-low .258 last year and through his first 17 games this season was hitting .230 replete with 20 strikeouts in 61 at-bats. Most importantly, Youkilis is in the last year of his contract. Boston does hold a team option which is worth $13 million with a $1 million buyout clause.
Middlebrooks handles questions about a possible promotion to Boston as deftly as he handles International League pitching. “It hasn’t been hard,” he said of the constant barrage. “I’ve been able to keep my focus. That’s not even in the back of my head, to be perfectly honest.
“I’m here to make a statement and play good baseball. If something happens, something happens. But that’s out of my hands.”
According to Beyeler what hasn’t happened are adjustments Middlebrooks has made at the plate. “I don’t know why he would want to (make adjustments) because he had a pretty good year last year,” said Beyeler. “Again, confidence is such a big factor. I’m sure there are things he works on every day. He works on staying in the middle of the field, driving the baseball and getting more at-bats because he doesn’t take a lot of walks. He’s a pretty free-swinging guy.
“But it’s okay when he’s squaring up the ball. He’s showed more discipline at the plate. But, again, there’s the old baseball adage that you learn how to hit by swinging and you learn how to hit by taking. Some guys learn different ways. He’s going a good job so far one of the ways and is working on the other way. That’s just going to continue making him a better player.”
What’s helped Middlebrooks become a better hitter is the fact he did get to face Triple-A pitching last season even in a minimal number of games. “You have a lot of guys who have good stuff in Double A … a lot of prospects who throw hard,” he said. “You get here and there’s a pretty good combination of guys who can throw it up there pretty hard and know how to pitch. They know how to adapt to what you do well. You have to adapt to them.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”
As far as Beyeler is concerned, Middlebrooks has resembled a cat more than a mouse. “He’s a hard-working kid who’s fun to watch,” said the skipper. “The sky’s the limit for this guy. You just see him working and getting better.”