EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 18, 2013

Lost in Bogaerts hype is Middlebrooks' potential impact

Fresh from Triple-A, cast-off goes 2 for 3 in Sox victory

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — Will Middlebrooks returned from Triple-A Pawtucket to Boston with no worry about getting off to a good start statistically.

“It wasn’t about stats for me,” Middlebrooks said. “I could have gone 0 for 3 with a walk — just do something to help us win. That’s what was important to me.”

Most of the talk over the last month has been about how Pawtucket shortstop/third baseman, 20-year-old phenom Xander Bogaerts, can help the Red Sox down the stretch. Everyone is excited about Bogaerts’ potential and rightfully so. He’s incredibly exciting. But let’s not eliminate Middlebrooks from the equation.

If Middlebrooks can provide some of the extra-base production he did last year (14 doubles, 15 homers in his 75 games), then he definitely will give the Red Sox a needed offensive boost in the final month and a half.

So far, Middlebrooks is off to a fine start since returning from his lengthy demotion in Pawtucket. He is 10 for 23 with two doubles. He went 2 for 3 with a walk and RBI yesterday to help the Red Sox win 6-1 over the Yankees here at Fenway Park.

“If this guy come here and do what he’s capable of doing, he’s going to help us a lot,” Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said. “We saw it last year when he came up here — the difference that he makes.”

Middlebrooks’ dismal start this season deflated everyone’s expectations, which were so lofty after his strong rookie campaign.

Yours truly wrote during spring training that Middlebrooks had the potential to be a middle-of-the-lineup, 30 home run/100 RBI slugger but noted that his free-swinging approach could hinder his progression and lower his batting average.

Plain and simple, expectations were set too high for Middlebrooks. In retrospect, the sample size was rather small from last year when he recorded 267 at-bats and had a high batting average for balls in play, which showed his overall average was bound to drop.

Can we set new expectations for him now?

No. After all, we again would be getting too far ahead of ourselves because we haven’t seen enough of him.

Middlebrooks insists his time down in Pawtucket helped him gain more focus at the plate.

“Just going up there and seeing the ball and hitting and going up there and having a plan,” Middlebrooks said. “That’s really the only thing I changed — going up there with a plan.”

Middlebrooks looked like he had no plan when batting .192 with Boston earlier this year before being demoted to Pawtucket. The third baseman was swinging at some ugly pitches out of the strike zone.

Yes, he’s a free swinger. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be patient on pitches out of the zone. Also, as a free swinger, he must make contact more often. He had made contact with 75.6 percent of the pitches he had swung at this year entering yesterday. Texas’ Adrian Beltre also is considered a free swinger but he is at 86.1 percent.

Middlebrooks needed to adjust his mental plan, but that didn’t mean adjusting his swing in certain situations such as with runners in scoring position and with two strikes.

“I feel like that’s when we as hitters get in trouble — when we try to change,” Middlebrooks said. “A lot of times when I’ve tried to change, and shorten up, it’s not my normal swing. So I feel like I have less of a chance to put the ball hard in play.”

Middlebrooks showed his progress yesterday in his second at-bat with two runners in scoring position and two outs. He was down in the count 1-2 but resisted swinging at a ball just low. On the next pitch with a 2-2 count, he found a hole up the middle for an RBI infield single. It wasn’t overly impressive but he knocked in the run.

“He’s more comfortable and just slowing things down better,” Rodriguez said. With the game itself, he looks like he’s humble and wanted to be here and show people what he can do.”

Rodriguez said Middlebrooks must get himself in a good position early in counts. He then can recognize certain pitches and attack.

“At times, they struggle when the game go quick and they aren’t able to slow things down,” Rodriguez added. “Then they start chasing pitches out of the strike zone. They are not recognizing pitches. And that’s when they get in trouble more. More the mental side than the physical side.”

Middlebrooks certainly was impressed with Bogaerts, Boston’s top prospect, when he was down working out the flaws in his game at Pawtucket.

“Just how young he is, man,” Middlebrooks said. “He’ll be 21 in October. And just how raw he is right now but to see the tools that are there and to see the player he’s going to be.”

What does Middlebrooks mean by raw?

“Right now, you can see him one at-bat and he’ll swing at three sliders in the dirt and next at-bat he’ll take those and hit a good pitch into the gap,” Middlebrooks said. “It’s just about consistency and that’s what’s it all about. He’s getting more consistent daily.”

It’s all about consistency with Middlebrooks, too. He needs to stick with a plan every time he bats. He’s doing that so far and the results have shown.

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB.