Monday, September 9, 2013

Middlebrooks Mashing

After a lengthy slump and a stint in Triple-A, Middlebrooks is back
As the Boston Red Sox storm towards a division title and possibly the best record in baseball, it seems like almost everyone on the roster--from Daniel Nava and Mike Carp to John Lackey and Koji Uehara--has contributed to the team's successful season. It's why they lead the league in chest bumps, fist pumps and bro-hugs.

There have been a few disappointments, of course (there always are). Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey got hurt early on. Clay Buchholz has once again proven himself to be incredibly fragile. Jackie Bradley Jr. didn't set the world on fire like we thought he would.

But nobody underachieved more than third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who spent much of the season trying to recapture the immense promise he displayed as a phenom in 2012.

Big things were expected from Middlebrooks this year, but that's what happens when you rake from day one and take Kevin Youkilis's job. One of the few bright spots to emerge from Boston's Bobby Valentine nightmare, Middlebrooks was supposed to be a fixture at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.

Instead, he fell into a prolonged slump early on from which he was unable to recover. Pitchers quickly figured him out and exploited his weaknesses, namely his willingness to swing at anything remotely close to home plate. John Farrell tried dropping the struggling sophomore down in the order to take some of the pressure off, but Middlebrooks continued to flail. He was helpless.

As spring became summer and it became clear the Red Sox were going to be serious postseason contenders, it was obvious a change needed to be made. Middlebrooks wasn't helping the team win games. Jose Iglesias was. So Iglesias--a shortstop by trade--moved to third and Middlebrooks was sent down to Pawtucket to get his swing right and regain his confidence. At the time of his demotion in late June, he was sporting an unpalatable .192/.228/.389 batting line--a far cry from his .288/.325/.509 showing as a rookie.

Though Middlebrooks did not hit exceptionally well with the PawSox (.790 OPS), the time on the farm appears to have done him some good. Since making his big league return on August 10th, he's batted a jaw-dropping .368/.434/.621 with 6 home runs and 16 RBI.  He's been especially hot in the month of September with four big flies, nine RBI, and 13 hits in seven games this month to help Boston pad its division lead. With the Red Sox eyeing a postseason berth, his resurgence couldn't have come at a better time.

And it isn't just a random hot streak, either. The more mature Middlebrooks has shown signs of becoming a more polished, refined hitter. Before his demotion, his strikeout to walk ratio was a lopsided 60/9. Since returning, it's been a much better 20/10. Accordingly, his strikeout rate has fallen considerably, from just under 28 percent to 20 percent. He's not getting himself out so much by swinging at tough pitches, and so his newfound patience is helping him make hard contact more consistently.

With his sophomore slump behind him, Middlebrooks is back on track, poised for greatness not just in the coming weeks, but in the years to come. Yes, his 2013 campaign has been a trying year marked by growing pains and squandered potential, but it has also been a valuable learning experience that will shape the course of his career.

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