Is Will Middlebrooks Already Irrelevant?

Will Middlebrooks had a fairly promising future with the Red Sox after being called up in 2012. His 2013 season did not go as planned. A couple of injuries and a demotion caused havoc on his season. Going forward into 2014, his career will be at a cross roads for several reasons.

No Plate Discipline

Career home runs = 32
Career unintentional walks = 30
Career K/BB = 5.1 K/BB (8th worst among hitters with 500 or more PA over the past two seasons)

He displays some nice power with his 32 home runs coming in 660 PA, but the plate discipline is destroying his value.  His all power, all strikeout, no walk approach reminds me of another failed prospect, J.P. Arencibia.

Back Injury

Middlebrooks experienced an early season back injury forcing him on the DL. On average, a player who goes on the DL because of a bad back injury sees a huge drop in production. Before the injury, he had an ISO of .218 and it dropped to .188 after he returned. Back problems can continue to limit a player’s production for years and years (see Mike Sweeney).

Role (and Team)?

In Boston, Xander Boegaerts will be playing either SS or 3B for the Red Sox. If the Red Sox bring Stephen Drew back, Middlebrooks will be regulated to the bench. He really has no value if he isn’t playing everyday.

One possiblity is for him to be traded this off-season. The Miami Marlins have already expressed interest with him. I am sure other teams would like to pick up a cost controlled 3B with potential. It doesn’t mean they will be picking up a good player though.


Usually, I like to stay away from make up issues, but Middlebrooks stated he struggled significantly with unexpected challenges in 2013 (link).

“Low point, which one? Man, there’s been a few. I mean, it’s tough,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s part of the game sometimes and like I said, I’ve learned countless things from this year to help me move forward in my career and take care of my body and just be a better player and teammate. I have learned a ton. Low point is obviously is being sent down. No one wants to lose their job.”

Generally, a player will have stress and either see it as a challenge to over come (see Dustin Pedroia playing all season with a wrist injury) or as a threat to back away from (link).

Furthermore, Kaiseler et al (2009) demonstrated that athletes high in ‘mental toughness’ perceived stressful events as a challenge, something that can be influenced, acted upon and capable of overcoming.

He admitted to struggling under the weight of injuries and a demotion. He may not crumble in the future in these cases, but how about others. Going to a new team? Being released? Playing MLB level baseball is hard and seemed to struggle when it got difficult.

I would stay away from Will Middlebrooks even if he has a starting role in Boston or elsewhere. He could struggle with plate discipline and/or injuries. Since he did not deal correctly with stress in 2013, I would expect him have problems again when confront with obstacles. He may be able to turn it complete around, I wouldn’t bet on it. I would take a late round or $1 flier on him with the assumption I will drop him quickly if he shows no signs of improvement.

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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

30 Responses to “Is Will Middlebrooks Already Irrelevant?”

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  1. Mobley15 says:

    He looked much better in the 2nd half of last year after he was called up, BB% was up K% was down, ISO staying constant. Probably a bit of BABIP luck but you aren’t drafting him to hit .300. Also, I’ll call SSS on the quote – here is another one from him. “It was fun,” Middlebrooks said. “I liked the challenge. But at the same time it’s hard. I was new to the whole big league atmosphere. I’d miss a ball and I’d get ‘Youked’ by the fans. I was like, ‘Come on.’ But I liked the pressure. It made me work harder.

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  2. Harrisoned says:

    Some counterpoints:

    1) His back injury was minor and the first injury of any kind in his career as far as I know; hard to believe he’s likely to get hurt.

    2) The demotion actually seemed to help him, as when he returned to the majors he posted a line of .276/.329/.476 and improved his K/BB ratio to a more respectable 3.5:1. His 24% K rate and 7% walk rate aren’t great but certainly not worth discarding

    3) His career line in just over a year of play is .254/.294/.462 with 32 HRs, 103 RBI, 75 runs and 7 SB. Here’s the list of 3Bs who have achieved a .250 average, 25 HR, 90+ RBI, and 70+ runs in the last 3 years: Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman. Six 3Bs. That’s it.

    4) He’s going to be 25 going into 2014. He’s still well into the upswing of his prime, probably 2-3 years away from his peak. It’s pretty reasonable to assume he should get better with things like plate discipline as he matures.

    5) Steamer projects him to hit .258 with 9 HRs, 28 RBI and 24 runs in 202 PAs. If he gets 600 PAs (ie, a full season), that’s a 27 HR, 84 RBI, 72 run season – probably worth more than a $1 flier.

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    • Cory says:

      On point 5, does steamer just project players in platoon roles? He sure does like him some lefties (career .838 OPS)

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  3. Harrisoned says:

    Should note the 24% K rate and 7% walk rate were what he posted after he was called back up in the 2nd half of the year.

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  4. JD says:

    He admitted to struggling under the weight of injuries and a demotion. He may not crumble in the future in these cases, but how about others. Going to a new team? Being released? Playing MLB level baseball is hard and [Middlebrooks] seemed to struggle when it got difficult.

    This is a really disappointing, outdated bit of psychology from an otherwise strong analysis. This goes way beyond the Votto/Greinke criticism (which is obviously baseless as it is) to saying that even admitting something was difficult is a sign of weakness. That’s just backward, and both a bad way of thinking about players and a bad convention to perpetuate.

    And even if it wasn’t a generally baseless criticism, it’s totally inconsistent with what he actually said in the quote. How is it soft to say “I’ve learned countless things from this year to help me move forward in my career and take care of my body and just be a better player and teammate. I have learned a ton.”? How is it soft to say, essentially, “man, it sucked getting sent down”?

    If you’re going to knock a guy’s makeup, you should have something better than mischaracterizing a quote and negative stereotyping. You’re too good for that.

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    • ed says:

      Yeah, I think the mental toughness thing is wildly overinterpreted in this overwise great piece. There are all kinds of ways to talk about how Middlebrooks sucks without having to resort to picking over some meaningless quote that tells you absolutely nothing about him as a person.

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    • joser says:

      Moreover, contrasting it with a player “playing through injury” is shortsighted as well. Plenty of players who played through injury didn’t demonstrate their toughness so much as demonstrate how subpar performance can hurt a team (real and fantasy).

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    • Bill says:

      Totally agreed. Was this written by Colin Cowherd? Seriously, I come to fangraphs because I know usually will find thoughtful, careful analysis, not armchair psychology.

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    • Jeff Zimmerman says:

      Thanks for the kind suggestions. Probably not one of my ideas.

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    • El sidd says:

      Gotta agree with this. Was all prepared to read something pithy and insightful about his makeup after that intro, and then….that quote as the money shot?

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  5. Judy says:

    Apparently, he’s not.

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  6. jim says:

    so… east coast mark trumbo

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  7. Chicago Mark says:

    Zim, you’re good! This ain’t. It sure seems like he took the whole thing as a challenge. I didn’t look at the link so may be wrong. But quoted stuff sounds positive to me.

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    • Wobatus says:

      Looking at the link, there was a general thread of It was the best of times it was the worst of times. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

      Personally, I’d wish it for myself. Hit a few dingers, get demoted, come back for stretch run and World Series run. Sign me up. But he was mostly just saying it was disappointing in some respects for him but he persevered and grew, yada yada.

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  8. Balthazar says:

    Is Middlebrooks irrelevant in Boston? Yes, but no, but maybe. Of Ortiz/Bogaerts/Drew/Napoli Middlebrooks is definitely a lesser option, so he’s going to sit. He’s not useless, but his offensive positives are both narrow, and given his early 2013 questionable. The fact that Middlebrooks is still inexpensive doesn’t mean he returns much value for his PT. So yes.

    But that is predicated upon both Drew and Napoli returning. Neither has a direct replacement in the org now if they don’t return to compete with Middlebrooks getting playing time. If Drew goes elsewhere—and I think he does—then Xander slides over and the Sox need a replacement at 3B, which Middlebrooks can be. If Napolit doesn’t return, Middlebrooks and Carp offer a reasonably interesting platoon at 1B, so Middlebrooks has a fit there too. So from the standpoint of depth, Middlebrooks is very UNreplaceable, he’s needed to fill what is likely to be at least one hole after contracts get signed. So no, Middlebrooks is not irrelevant.

    But the larger question is, where are the Sox going to play Bogaerts? Because it’s probably best if they decide now and let him settle into what will be his role for the next 3-4 years. Jerking Xander back and forth between 3B and SS just because he can and they can strikes me as dumb development. Bogaerts is just too important a prospect to Boston. So the key decision is to decide ‘whither Bogerts?’ which in turn determines what Middlebrooks’ role might be since he is marginal, certainly nothing like Bogaerts. If Xander goest to short, then the Sox need, and should be glad to have, Middlebrooks to hold down 3B for peanuts and a few dingers until the budget and the market presents a better option. If Xander is set for 3B, Middlebrooks’ role is ‘platoon 1bman.’ I think that that might actually play well for Red Sox—but then again, geting something back for him in trade might well be worth more than that. So maybe; settle Xander’s turf and then we’ll know what relevance remains for Will.

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    • Balthazar says:

      And btw Middlebrooks reminds me of another Bosox 3bman: Buth Hobson. Except Hobson was a hair better. Not a ringing endorsement, but the Sox managed to win which all-cut all-the-time Butch in the lineup for a few years. And then Hobson’s game played him out of the majors, exactly as one anticipated from his first at-bat in the Bigs.

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    • james wilson says:

      Great analysis. That explains the juggling act that is on Cherington’s mind right now. Add or remove one part and it changes all the other pieces.

      I see Middlebrook’s makeup as being good to better than good. He is making every adjustment he can at the plate. The issue is whether he will ever be able to perceive the slider before he’s in his swing. Most of us can’t. Manny Mota used to stand Raul Mondesi at the plate every day without a bat and throw him sliders to impart the look of the rotation. It never took.

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  9. I seem to recall the rib injury being bigger than the back injury. I think he tried to play through it and couldn’t. He has a football background. Stay tuned because he IS coming back.

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  10. Savin Hillbilly says:

    An interesting thing about Middlebrooks is that even though his walk rates are terrible, his swing rates are just average (including the O/Z breakdown). It’s not that he’s swinging at too many pitches, or even too many bad pitches–just the wrong ones at the wrong times. He’s not a hacker so much as a hitter with pitch recognition/selection issues who is (at this stage in his career) easily manipulated by good pitchers into a poor AB.

    The question is whether, at 25, there’s realistic hope that he can get better at this. The one grain of hope for him is that his walk rates improved steadily (though modestly) over his three years in AAA, suggesting that he is capable of progress on this front. If he can become, say, a 7% BB rate hitter, with his power, that’s probably enough to be a useful player.

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  11. yosoyfiesta says:

    Will Middlebrooks and Mike Moustakas should start a dry cleaning service together, they could clean real ball players suits.

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  12. Cool Lester Smooth says:

    Not to be that guy, Jeff, but it’s “relegated to the bench,” not “regulated to the bench.”

    Great article otherwise, though. I’ve been saying Middlebrooks is fools’ gold since last year.

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  13. FeslenR says:

    in fantasy terms, he’s a poor man’s Pedro Alvarez. I had always stayed away from him…and will continue to do so until he proves he’s a viable fantasy contributor.

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  14. GilaMonster says:

    Will Middlebrooks has the upside of Pedro Alvarez or Mark Reynolds, but the downside of being J.P. Arencibia or Mark Trumbo.

    Yeah he’ll probably hit you 30 home runs over a full season, but is he going to be bad or really bad? I don’t think he has the power to pull a Chris Davis.

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  15. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Will Middlebrooks is irrelevant, but mostly because his risk vs. reward means he isn’t worth it as a flier: His risk has a good to high chance of happening and is quite bad, while the reward is (aside from the unrealistic Chris Davis-esque breakout) not too likely looking and not amazing.

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  16. Green Mountain Boy says:

    All I know is you can’t teach plate discipline and pitch recognition, and it doesn’t develop suddenly at the MLB level. Middlebrooks has neither and he never will.

    If the Marlins are interested, Cherington ought to be listening. So much of this is dependent on what Drew & Napoli do, but I can’t see any situation with Middlebrooks getting 500 PAs in 2014 being good for the Red Sox.

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