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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.