Will-power?

Will Middlebrooks is a popular pick for a breakout player (at least according to the local Boston media).  Now breakouts aren’t really something you can predict, but I will not go into that whole can of worms.  On the surface Will Middlebrooks seems like an obvious choice, a young player with power, coming off a down year with no serious injury history.  The hopes for a Middlebrooks breakout upon closer inspection seem to be driven by hope and optimism rather than actual facts.

Middlebrooks’s glaring flaw last season was his sub .300 OBP (.271), which was driven in large part by his low walk rate (5.3%) and high strikeout rate (26.2%).  Believing that Middlebrooks can improve those numbers is central to any hope that he will have a breakout season.  Alex Speier  showed that it’s not unprecedented for young power hitters with sub .300 OBPs to see a large improvement in the OBP area, but it’s also not guaranteed.  Of the players Speier looked at only 18% saw their OBP increase by 30 points or more (which is what it would take to get Will over .300), so why does the Boston media believe that Middlebrooks will experience this rare transformation?

The main driving narrative behind this optimism is that Middlebrooks was over aggressive and had terrible plate discipline last year, and this allowed pitchers to dominate him. But now that he has worked on his approach at the plate during spring training everything will come together.

This “Willpower” narrative goes all the way to the top

Red Sox manager John Farrell told reporters “I think last year we saw some at-bats where maybe he was pressing a little bit, maybe trying to make up for some previous at-bats where it would cause him to be a little overaggressive or expand the strike zone, That willingness to swing, pitchers didn’t have to challenge him all that much” when explaining Middlebrooks past struggles.  We are led to believe that this former Achilles heel is no more after his successful spring training, as Middlebrooks told reporters “The one thing that sticks out to me is I’ve swung at one pitch outside of the zone this spring.”

Will Middlebrooks had a great spring training ( .353/.389/.667) but spring training stats are useless for predicting regular season success.  And, as it turns out, are far from the only problems with this “Willpower” narrative.  The idea that Will Middlebrooks was overly aggressive and had bad plate discipline is something that can be checked very easily by looking at Middlebrooks’s plate discipline stats vs the league average for last season.

Did Middlebrooks have poor plate discipline last season?

2013

pitches/PA Swing% 1stP Swing Contact O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z-Contact Zone% Swstr%
Will

4.11

46.6%

26.2%

75%

30.8%

64.5%

81.4%

47%

11.5%

Lg ave

3.86

46.4%

25.3%

79.5%

30.9%

65.8%

87.2%

44.5%

9.2%

Will Middlebrooks plate discipline compared to the average major leaguer.

Checking the number reveals the surprising fact that Will Middlebrooks’s plate discipline was not terrible but surprisingly average.  He appeared to be a little bit aggressive, swinging a bit more at the first pitch but those 0.9 percentage points translated three more plate appearances with Will swinging at the first pitch hardly enough to ruin his triple slash line.  The next surprising thing that the numbers reveal is that pitchers were actually throwing Middlebrooks more strikes than the average hitter (and more compared to what he saw the previous season), so while pitcher might not have had to challenge him, they didn’t shy away from throwing him pitches in the zone.  Middlebrooks actually saw a lot more pitches in the strike zone than other power hitters.  For players with at least a 0.190 ISO and at least 350 PA only Jayson Werth saw more pitches in the strike zone .  These facts throw the whole premise of this “Willpower” out the window.

How does the image of Will Middlebrooks the aggressive hacker persist when it’s clearly untrue?

Well whenever you see such a low walk rate coupled with such a high strike out rate the easy first assumption is that the player swings at everything, this is a fare guess if didn’t have better data, but we do.  But what about some on who watched every single Middlebrooks plate appearance such as his manager, how could they have such a distorted view.  Well everything is relative, relative to an average major-leaguer Middlebrooks’s plate discipline and his approach were average but compared to other players on the Red Sox Middlebrooks was aggressive and undisciplined.  The Red Sox as a team swung at the first pitch less often than any other team in the majors.  So when not watching Middlebrooks, John Farrell was watching some of the most patient and disciplined hitters in baseball so this is an understandable bias.

The highly improbable feat of chasing only one pitch out of the strike zone over 26 plate appearances.

Now let’s look at Will’s assertion that he only chased one pitch out of the strike zone over his first 26 plate appearances (that’s the number he had prior to his quote).  This would be incredible and might even be meaningful if it were true.  We don’t have spring training plate discipline numbers so we will do a Gedankenexperiment (what Einstein called thought experiments because he was German) and assume the Will saw 100 pitches over those 26 plate appearances (lower than his career average rate and a bit below league average) and half of those were out of the strike zone (also generous considering that usually more than half of pitches are out of the strike zone and in spring pitcher are rusty and of a lower talent pool) this would give Will Middlebrooks a 2% chase rate ( chances are it would have to be lower than that for him to only chase one pitch over 26 plate appearances but we are giving him the benefit of the doubt).  This would be really impressive for a guy who normally chased around 30% of pitches (it would actually be impressive for anyone), and it’s a number that no one has ever sustained for a full season.

How rare is 2% chase rate over that short a time frame?  It’s so rare that no one even came close to it last year.  The closest was Shane Robinson, when last year in the month of June he had 27 plate appearances and only swung at 7.7% of pitches outside the strike zone, that was the lowest chase rate any player had during any month last season (assuming they had at least 20 plate appearances).

Given our prior knowledge about Will Middlebrooks and major-league hitters in general I will go out on a limb and say that I believe Middlebrooks swung at more than one pitch out of the zone.  I bet Middlebrooks believes he only swung at one pitch out of the zone, and this more than anything might point to a flawed understanding of the strike zone.  So while any player can improve by improving their plate discipline (case in point that Joey Votto can still benefit from it) its not a cure-all for baseball problems, and Will Middlebrooks’s problems extend beyond his plate discipline.

If plate discipline wasn’t the reason Middlebrooks was terrible last year then what was the problem?

Part of Middlebrooks’s problem was his abysmal .263 BABIP, this will likely be closer to league average in 2014 and is probably one of the best reasons to believe that Middlebrooks will be better than he was last year.  Unfortunately it sounds much better to say you are working on your plate discipline in spring training than to say you are hope your BABIP will regress towards the mean.  But BABIP is only part of the picture it doesn’t explain his 5.3% walk rate and 26.2% strikeout rate (the low BABIP and therefore production might have led pitcher to throw Will more strikes thus diminishing his walk rate, but this would only be a small effect).

Middlebrooks’s real problem seems to be with making contact, especially when it comes to pitches in the strike zone. He was 212th out of the 237 players with at least 350 PA last year in terms of zone contact (that means 89% of players are better than him), making contact only 81.4% of the time when he swung at a pitch in the strike zone.  This low zone contact rate is probably a large part of the reason pitchers felt comfortable throwing him so many pitches in the zone.  This issue was further compounded by the fact that when Will did make contact the ball went foul slightly more than half of the time (50.4% compared to the league average of 48.1%).  This leads to his high strike out rate.

Look at it this way:

a)      when Middlebrooks swung his chance of making contact with the ball was below average, and

b)      when he did make contact the chance of that ball going in fair territory was below average, and

c)       if that ball was put in play the chance of it being a hit was well below average.

These issues meant pitchers could throw Will lots of strikes, and if a player with average discipline sees fewer balls than average then they are going to walk less than average.

Will Middlebrooks will most likely be better than he was last season (more of a bounce-back than a breakout), and he might even have a breakout season but it will take more than improved plate discipline for that to happen.

 

All stats are from FanGraphs (used the regular plate discipline stats not the pitch f/x ones) with the exceptions of pitches per PA, 1st pitch swing%, and foul ball stats which are all from baseball-reference.com

Also the quotes are from the Alex Speier article, although I believe they were given to the media in general.




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George is always thinking about baseball, and frequently writes down those thoughts on his blog. Follow him on Twitter @GWRambling.


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fardbart
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fardbart
2 years 4 months ago

Nice strawman. I am in boston and have heard exactly nobody place much faith in middlebrooks.

Bill
Guest
Bill
2 years 4 months ago

Great analysis. I’m not in Boston, but I’ve heard various mindless babblers in sports media say they believe Middlebrooks will breakout. Harold Reynolds even thinks the Phillies will be playoff contenders. I don’t see a strawman. Even if it is, my belief was that Middlebrooks’ primary issue was plate discipline. You’ve corrected that, thank you.

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