After suffering through a slump that wouldn’t go away, the Red Sox finally dropped the hammer Tuesday, optioning the struggling Will Middlebrooks to Triple-A Pawtucket where they’ll hope he can find whatever might be left of his swing. To some fans, the demotion was a little surprising, as much of the mainstream chatter surrounding the team revolved around who should get more playing time in the Stephen Drew/Jose Iglesias battle at SS. The real question should have been – why is Will Middlebrooks still on the active roster?
The signs pointing towards a demotion were coming as far back as a month or so ago when a full week before Middlebrooks was placed on the DL, Jose Iglesias was auspiciously moved to 3B. Now I’m really speculating here, but I don’t think Middlebrooks ever had any kind of back stiffness. I think Management had their fill of him attempting to work out his issues in game environments and opted to give him an extended layoff to try and work out any issues he had in the cage, free of the pressures of competition.
What the Red Sox probably didn’t count on was Iglesias – seemingly out of nowhere – finding his stroke at the plate. His surprising offensive outburst eventually forced management’s hand to make a decision – which by that point, had to be an easy one.
While it’s true that Iglesias isn’t a very good hitter and that regression could and should be expected, it’s hard to imagine that even his worst could be more intolerable than WMB’s plate production to this point. On the defensive side of the coin, the decision is a no brainer – Iglesias on his worst defensive days is likely better than Middlebrooks at his best. Given that you stood at a net-zero result with Iglesias projected performance at the plate vs. WMB’s actual results, the success metrics shift to the defensive side of the coin, where Iglesias is an easy winner and as a result – a clear upgrade over Middlebrooks in the here and now. Add in his unexpected firepower as of late, and going with Iglesias over Middlebrooks doesn’t become a ‘decision,’ but rather a path to be followed.
The results were clear. Middlebrooks’ problems were far from ‘just another slump’ and certainly weren’t going to work themselves out in the Majors. The sample size was just too big.
Going back to last August, Middlebrooks has hit an atrocious .194/.257/.387. His 4.2 BB% and 27.8 K% places him among the bottom 20 in all of baseball in both categories. Even his defense, which has been mostly above average his whole Minor League career – has cratered this year to the tune of a -3.6 FLD. Add it all together and Middlebrooks as posted a miserable -0.6 fWAR which among MLB 3B, that places him behind Michael Young, the struggling Mike Moustakas, Alberto Callaspo and even Jayson Nix. Clearly, that’s not what the Red Sox – or anyone, for that matter- expected heading into the 2013 season.
However, to point at the results as the sole reason for demotion is missing a substantial chunk of the Will Middlebrooks equation. The Red Sox have always been an organization that’s taken great pride in stressing ‘process’ at every level of their organization, from upper management all the way down to coaching players. If the process is right, the belief is that eventually, the results will be, too. The problem with Will Middlebrooks, is… well, his process.
The real reason for the demotion and the reason it’s the right decision – to me at least – are one in the same: Middlebrooks isn’t making the necessary adjustments in the face of pretty clear data that points to where his issues lay. Simply put, he can’t hit anything down in the strike zone.
Even a quick glance at his heat map paints a pretty sobering picture. Pitchers are abusing him down and away repeatedly. They get him to hit over top of sinkers, changeups and splitters that fall out of the zone. They get him to chase belt high sliders and even more recently, began to brazenly throw sliders belt high and IN the strike zone in order to strike him out. He’s got what appears to be a hole in his swing, and pitchers are attacking it.
But even after that explanation, all we’re left with are a whole new set of questions. While it’s true that the knock on Middlebrooks as a prospect was his poor plate approach, there was nothing in any scouting report I can find that suggested he had the kind of deep-seeded plate coverage issues that he seems to be having right now. Still, you’d have to think that even with his flaws as a player, that the results would be better than what they’ve been this season.
Regardless, it’s pretty clear that these issues are substantial ones and won’t work themselves out at the MLB level. Middlebrooks – for better or worse – will need to hit his way out of this slump in Triple-A while simultaneously watching Xander Bogaerts inch his way closer in his rearview mirror. While I’m certainly not ready to give up on him yet, Middlebrooks is in a tenuous situation right now. With Bogaerts gaining ground and Iglesias staying hot, Middlebrooks may find himself to be the odd man out if he can’t right the ship quickly.