Can Middlebrooks Excel Without Discipline?

When the Red Sox dealt Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox in June, it was as much a vote of confidence for young third baseman Will Middlebrooks as anything else. The trade left Middlebrooks as the only MLB-ready third baseman in the organization (Mauro Gomez doesn’t count), meaning the Red Sox were ready to let it ride on any would-be rookie growing pains.

Such pains haven’t surfaced yet. Middlebrooks owns a .301/.331/.525 line on the season, good for a 126 wRC+, tying him for eighth among third basemen with at least 250 plate appearances. All this comes despite 62 strikeouts against 10 walks.

Middlebrooks’s plate discipline has been an issue throughout his career. He has struck out at least 2.5 times as often as he walked at every minor league level, combining to strike out 449 times against 128 walks in 1706 PA. In the upper minors and now the majors, the strikeout rate has approached 25% while the walk rate languishes near 4%.

It hasn’t mattered yet because Middlebrooks is making the most of his contact. He owns a .225 ISO and a .354 BABIP, with those two facets of his game completely driving his production.

That’s fine for now, but power production and BABIP are the two slowest aspects of hitting to stabilize, whereas the discipline stats are the quickest.

And so here’s the question: how much power does Middlebrooks need to provide to remain productive despite his troubles before contact? To answer this question, I used a method called Four Factors (inspired by Dean Oliver’s metric for basketball) to analyze what a hitter with Middlebrooks’s discipline stats would look like with varying power numbers and BABIPs. Observe:

To explain: the horizontal axis shows power as represented by POW, or extra bases per hit. The league average is .600, Middlebrooks is at .757 this season. The vertical axis represents the resulting wOBA, and each green line represents BABIPs ranging from .250 to .350.

Middlebrooks’s .757 POW (.225 ISO) is impressive, but the result would be a merely average hitter (.316 wOBA) with a .300 BABIP instead of .350. ZiPS (as of the weekend) finds the same result, expecting a drop in power to below the league average and a drop in BABIP to .330.

But the line of note, at least to me, is the .300 BABIP line. Middlebrooks needs nearly an extra base per hit — roughly prime Ryan Howard power — to get back to the .360 wOBA he’s posting this season with a .300 BABIP. Middlebrooks has shown impressive power this year, but never on that level (nor in the minors). If Middlebrooks is to remain one of the better hitting third basemen, the conclusion is unavoidable — he’ll have to walk more, or strike out less, or both.

Middlebrooks is just 23, though, with plenty of room to grow. Consider Austin Jackson, a player who exhibited many of the same strengths and weaknesses in his first couple of seasons as a major league hitter. A look with the Four Factors was similarly pessimistic after his 2010 season, and Jackson did struggle in 2011, posting a 90 wRC+ with a 27.1% strikeout rate. But Jackson has rebuilt his approach this year. He’s walking more than half as often as he strikes out, and the result is a .395 wOBA, 62 points higher than 2010 despite the same BABIP.

Middlebrooks has shown the ability to hit the ball with authority in his short time as a major leaguer. To get the most out of this ability, he’ll need to make consistent contact. If he can take this next step, the Middlebrooks we’ve seen this year can be around for years to come.



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lester bangs
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lester bangs
3 years 9 months ago

If Thora Birch couldn’t do it, Willie Middlebrooks isn’t doing it.

HMK
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HMK
3 years 9 months ago

even when austin jackson was striking out 180 times he still had 50+ walks. only the elite of the elite can give great production while maintaining pitiful walk rates. think josh hamilton (rarely walks, but also strikes out much less than middlebrooks) or robinson cano (also low walks, low strikeouts). middblebrooks is a solid hitter, and it is certainly possible to be a great hitter without getting the lion’s share of BBs… but the good hitters who have low walk rates also manage to limit their strikeout totals, too. if middlebrooks’ walk rate doesn’t change, he will have a difficult time remaining an above average major leaguer unless he drastically changes his K rate.

Tom
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Tom
3 years 9 months ago

I think this is a real good assessment.

The other factor is his defense; it’s not great (though not terrible) and when you start to get into marginal defense it also impacts his ability to be a productive player. (this is not critique of the article which was obviously just focused on the bat)

Austin Jackson also changed his swing this year (mainly I think his initial stride), while it’s hard to definitively say that is the cause, there is something you can point to other than simply “better discipline” as he ages

Alex
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Alex
3 years 9 months ago

I would argue the removal of the big leg kick allows for him to exhibit better discipline .

With a smaller stride, the batter has more time to commit to a pitch. With the big leg kick, if he sees fastball, he has to commit to hit it, and if the pitcher has in fact throw a hook, then A-Jax was done. However, with a smaller stride, he can get his front foot down quicker, and not have to sell out to the fastball.

bcarsley22
Member
bcarsley22
3 years 9 months ago

I disagree that Middlebrooks is a defensive liability. His glove, arm and power were always viewed as his plus tools in the minor. He’s made a few ill-advised throws this year, I’ve been satisfied with his range, reactions and arm.

NS
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NS
3 years 9 months ago

What is the basis for this assessment of his defense?

Tom
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Tom
3 years 9 months ago

Scouting reports and the few games I have seen. UZR at this point is in the small sample size range, but it is negative. DRS is also significantly negative.

Have there been many scouts who have projected him as having anything better than average defense (as a ceiling)? I’m certainly don’t recall seeing a lot of “plus glove”

I didn’t say he was a liability, I said not great – as in he won’t be adding value via the glove.

KyleL
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KyleL
3 years 9 months ago

Keith Law has said he is a plus defender at 3B more than once. Baseball Prospect Nation (Mark Anderson) says he’s a plus defender with a plus-plus arm. Baseball America rated him the best defensive 3B in the Carolina League in 2010. And when he was called up Goldstein wrote “His defense has always impressed,” and “he has plus range, good hands, and an outstanding arm.”

My personal favorite is from Goldstein’s top 11 Red Sox prospects list before this season: “He’s one of the better defensive third baseman in the minors with quick reactions, soft hands, and a well above average arm.”

RC
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RC
3 years 9 months ago

“Have there been many scouts who have projected him as having anything better than average defense (as a ceiling)? I’m certainly don’t recall seeing a lot of “plus glove” ”

Yeah, pretty much all of them say hes a plus defender. He’s having some rookie jitters, but hes still a much better defender than Youkilis was.

everdiso
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everdiso
3 years 9 months ago

Doubtful, this guy, like all other Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, and Orioles prospects, was completely overhyped. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll even be in the league 3 years from now, much less a regular player. The Red Sox should have kept Youkilis and at least gotten a .310 wOBA out of him, rather than shipping him off to the White Sox and watching him hit .360 wOBA there.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
3 years 9 months ago

and yet I’m still right about your beloved red sox, and you’re not.

everdiso
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everdiso
3 years 9 months ago

Sorry, that was meant to be addressed to the guy above. Obviously did not mean to respond to myself.

jpg
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jpg
3 years 9 months ago

You suck at trolling yourself

kevin
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kevin
3 years 9 months ago

Yes because its not like Pedroia, Ellsbury, Cano, Gardner, Longoria, Price, Lester, Papelbon, Adam Jones, Gardner, etc. ever had a good season. Totally overrated.

J-bones
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J-bones
3 years 9 months ago

Well to be fair Adam Jones was never really a Baltimore prospect

Basebull
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Basebull
3 years 9 months ago

I bailed on a similar young, high-power, high-K, low-BB player this year on my fantasy team, assuming that the lack of contact would come back to wreak havoc on his BA – Mark Trumbo. That one hurt. I think I’m content to hold onto Middlebrooks knowing that he’s 23, high-pedigree, playing in a good lineup and that young hitters can learn patience and pitch recognition as they get more AB under their belt, thanks.

Derek R-C
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Derek R-C
3 years 9 months ago

Agreed. The easiest thing for a young hitter to learn is patience and pitch recognition. He has all the tools he just needs to stay smart and work hard and he will be fine.

Paul Sporer
Member
Member
3 years 9 months ago

Nerd alert: love seeing you use a Tableau visual in this piece… I just started a job here at Tableau on Monday.

RA Rowe
Member
RA Rowe
3 years 9 months ago

I thought this was about Will Middlebrooks’ erratic tendencies while making spreadsheets.

nshlain
Member
3 years 9 months ago

I’m not sure I like the Austin Jackson comparison very much. Jackson’s walk rates were higher than 4% even before this year and he’s had Babips higher than .390 twice in three years. That isn’t Will Middlebrooks, obviously. I think last year’s version of Trumbo is kind of what we’re seeing here with Middlebrooks, though Trumbo did have higher walk rates in the minors than Middlebrooks.

DD
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DD
3 years 9 months ago

Great points in this article. We should probably use this type of analysis when looking at rookies and other young players with little track record to gauge their expected future value (Trout, Harper, etc.)

Scott
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Scott
3 years 9 months ago

Wouldn’t Michael Morse or Chris Davis be more apt comps? Each of those guys is 5% or worse BB rate and 20+% K rate. Would it shock anyone to see WMB continue to show an ISO north of .200 but only see his babip drop to .320-.330 or so? Those comps I threw out are not the fastest guys and one would assume the better than average babip’s each has shown in his career comes from very hard contact when they do connect.

Caveman Jones
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Caveman Jones
3 years 9 months ago

This is a good article and does a good job of visually showing why people have been cautious on Middlebrooks.

Granted he was a little younger in his first full year Adam Jones seems like a reasonable comp through the first few hundred PAs. Jones K’d a little bit less but walked about as much with less power. AJackson seems reasonable as well. The tradeoff is that these guys play a premium position but Middlebrooks has more power. It’s not that crazy to think Middlebrooks can improve his plate discipline, despite not having a track record in the minors.

Josh Reddick is another Sox guy who had trouble with plate discipline in his first couple hundred PAs and he’s shown improvement as well. Granted he didn’t have the K rate of Middlebrooks during his breakout, but he certainly didn’t walk very much and definitely looked exposed after his first trip through the league.

The common consensus has been the Sox will move Xander Bogaerts to 3B, but if they feel like Middlebrooks will develop into a long term option they may have to find another place for him. That move will be telling of how the organization feels about Middlebrooks.

Jonathan
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Jonathan
3 years 9 months ago

Unless there’s a major trade at some point, Middlebrooks is probably more of a stopgap measure for the Sox. Two of their top five prospects in many circles (Bogaerts himself and Garin Cecchini) project as 3B down the line.

Both Bogaerts and Cecchini are, even at an aggressive guess, at least two years away. Best case scenario for the Sox is that Middlebrooks manages to improve his discipline a bit and might net something good in trade a few years down the line if one of those two hits anything close to their ceilings.

KyleL
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KyleL
3 years 9 months ago

The only issue I really have with this is the assumption of a .300 BABIP. He’s a guy who makes a lot of solid contact and hits a lot of line drives, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect him to maintain a higher than average BABIP despite only being an averagish runner (in fact, I haven’t figured his xBABIP in a couple weeks, but the last time I did it was about .330, and it would be quite a bit easier for him to be an above average hitter with a .330 BABIP than a .300 BABIP).

KyleL
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KyleL
3 years 9 months ago

I just figured his xBABIP again, and right now it’s .344. I know xBABIP isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty clear that he could be expected to maintain a fairly high BABIP.

Michael Scarn
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Michael Scarn
3 years 9 months ago

Not to mention that wall is going to play to his pull tendency and power.

ralph
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ralph
3 years 9 months ago

Yep, hits off the Green Monster fall into that weird category of being in-play, but also defense-independent (with the occasional exception of whether a hit is a double or single). I’d be really curious to see his batting average on balls that first hit grass, glove, or dirt (BABFHGGD).

ralph
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ralph
3 years 9 months ago

I’m also interested more generally in how repeatable of a skill it is to get hits off the Monster.

JF145
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JF145
3 years 9 months ago

He’s not a star, imo, but can be an everyday player, and the Red Sox need some young, cheap everyday players to offset some of those albatross contracts.

Pat G
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Pat G
3 years 9 months ago

Wirr Midderbrooks racks disciprine

ucanthandlethetruth
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ucanthandlethetruth
3 years 9 months ago

well written article and i agree will middlebrooks is a fluke and he will soon regress to mediocrity, which will only further increase the rate at which this boston team continues their transformation into a perennial loser.

chuckb
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chuckb
3 years 9 months ago

Interesting. That’s not the way I interpreted the article.

Racist Boston
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Racist Boston
3 years 9 months ago

How about an article about BJ Upton getting called a racial slur during the Rays-Sox brawl earlier this year.

B N
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B N
3 years 9 months ago

While we’re at it, we can feature things like Bobby Bonds’ experiences in Boston and a whole bunch of other things that are irrelevant by this point in time! Heck, if we get back far enough, we can find the time when Boston was a haven for freed slaves to make a living! If we go back even farther, we can reach a time when the Wampanoag’s controlled the region, along with the Pequot and other tribes! Eventually, we’ll get back so far that we’ll have an article featuring how the earth was once just a ball of molten magma!

Or we can stay on topic. Yah, let’s do that one instead.

Patrick
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Patrick
3 years 9 months ago

As a Red Sox fan who has been highly skeptical of Middlebrooks, I think this actually a break-out year and that the magnitude of the break-out is being underestimated because people are not taking into account the fact that his statistics are being achieved at a level two levels higher than the one he spent most of last year at.

While BABIP for pitchers tends to converge at around .300, it does not do the same for hitters. Stronger hitters — i.e. those that hit the ball harder — can maintain higher BABIP, and Middlebrooks is nothing if not strong. His BABIP throughout his minor league career has ranged between .350 to .380– his current BABIP is not inconsistent with what he has done in the past.

However, I am more optimistic about Middlebrooks ability to achieve better BB and K rates. While he was at AAA this year, his BB and K rates both improved dramatically from in the past (especially the K rate — yes, small sample size). I think it is highly likely that the accelerated promotion to the Majors has had the effect of masking that genuine improvement. Most players see a significant collapse in BB and K when progressing two levels in a short period of time.

I think if he had remained the rest of the year at AAA, we might have seen a significant improvement in his BB and K numbers and he might have had a monster year. I think when you combine what he has done in the Majors with the fact that his promotion was somewhat accelerated, I think there are solid — although not overwhelming — reasons to be bullish on Will Middlebrooks.

Brandon T
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Brandon T
3 years 9 months ago

Actually, BABIP is more dependent on Line Drive % and footspeed than hitting the ball hard. The highest BABIP players — Rod Carew and Ichiro, for example — are good examples of this.

Derek R-C
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Derek R-C
3 years 9 months ago

To play devils advocate. A ground ball is just a weaker hit line drive. Obviously there are some balls that are just beat into the ground, I am talking about a typical ground ball to SS or 3B.

Paul
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Paul
3 years 9 months ago

We also need to re-set our thinking about the BB% and SO% we’ve become accustomed to seeing as average.

If you filter the Team Stats page and set it to 1993-2012, you’ll see that overall the average BB% this year is at a 20 year low, and SO% is at a 20 year high – and up significantly from the next highest SO% over that period. Both the previous low BB% and high SO% in that 20 year span were in 2011.

That’s not to say the article is wrong, just that should not be outlandish to see very talented hitters like Middlebrooks excel with rates that seem very skewed in the context of the steroid era.

Dean Travers
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Dean Travers
3 years 9 months ago

Reminds me of Shea Hillenbrand

Brandon T
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Brandon T
3 years 9 months ago

Except he doesn’t appear to be as much of a jerk and now in the post-steroids era ISO over .200 is unusual.

Brandon T
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Brandon T
3 years 9 months ago

Actually, Middlebrooks has even more power and even worse discipline — I didn’t realize exactly how “bad” Shea was. Plus which, Middlebrooks broke into the majors two years younger than Shea. So he’ll probably be a much better player in the long run — unless the league finds a huge hole in his swing and he can’t adjust and ends up being Jeff Francouer, Jr.

Jason
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Jason
3 years 9 months ago

Middlebrooks has always hit for a slightly higher BABIP than expected and league average. The last two seasons his BABIP has sat in the .330-.340 range while being significantly higher than that in previous seasons. His average is .3582 with a stdev of .0229.
Without a few years of MLB experience to see where his normalizes out to, it might not be prudent to assume league average. If he hits at his previous slightly higher than normal BABIP we can use the .325 line from the graph above, he should also hit for slightly more power than average so lets assume .65 (all for simplicities sake, here) then his wOBA would be about .322.

supershredder
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supershredder
3 years 9 months ago

Here’s one for you – how about comparing him with positional contemporary Chris Johnson? I would guess Middlebrooks has better contact rates though. I sold high in June anyways cause I was worried about his peripheral stat profile.

Eric M. Van
Guest
3 years 9 months ago

The late lamented MinorLeagueSplits had a “luck” adjustment, which appeared to substitute some form of xBABIP for actual. According to this, Middlebrooks was lucky on all three types of ball in play in each of his first three years. You’d have to look at 354 different guys to have 50-50 odds of finding that at random. It’s hard to say exactly what this means without knowing what their xBABIP adjustment was, but it likely supports the notion that we can expect less BABIP regression than is ordinary.

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