What’s the connection between ex-Angels outfielder Garret Anderson and Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks?
Ask Bill James, the Red Sox senior adviser of baseball operations.
He’ll begin by pointing out Middlebrooks’ OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) plummeted 139 points from .835 in 2012 at 23 years old to .696 in 2013 at 24.
“The last player who closely matched that pattern was Garret Anderson, who had a .857 OPS as a 23-year-old in 1995, then dropped to .719 as a 24-year-old in 1996 (138-point dip),” James noted in an e-mail to The Eagle-Tribune. “Anderson went on to have a decent career. Before Anderson, the last player who had that pattern was Rick Reichardt.
“Reichardt had an .846 OPS as a 23-year-old rookie in 1966, dropped to .724 as a 24-year-old in 1967. Reichardt didn’t have as good a career as Garret Anderson, but he recovered and was a regular for several years.”
The 2014 season marks a crucial one for Middlebrooks. Can he recover after struggling mightily last summer?
Middlebrooks and the defending-World Series champion Red Sox begin the regular season tomorrow against the Orioles at 3:05 p.m. in Baltimore. Sox southpaw Jon Lester starts opposite Orioles righty Chris Tillman.
Boston GM Ben Cherington opted not to re-sign starting shortstop Stephen Drew, a move that likely would have shifted Xander Bogaerts to third base. That would have put Middlebrooks in a state of great uncertainty.
Cherington instead has put his trust in Middlebrooks and Bogaerts, Baseball America’s No. 2 prospect, to do the job on the left side of the infield. For now, Cherington will live or die with those two because the depth behind them is minimal.
James, the well-known mastermind behind sabermetrics, projects that Middlebrooks will recover.
He authors a handbook each offseason projecting players’ statistics for the upcoming baseball season. The 2014 “Bill James Handbook” has Middlebrooks batting .266 with 32 homers, 104 RBIs and an .800 OPS.
That seems optimistic considering Middlebrooks was demoted to Pawtucket for an extended period last year.
“I am kind of astonished that anyone would describe an .800 OPS projection for Middlebrooks as ‘high expectations,’ given the fact that he had an (.835) OPS as a rookie two years ago,” James responded.
A FLUKE OR A TREND?
Middlebrooks — who had 17 hits, four homers, a double and a triple, in 47 at-bats this spring entering Friday — must show he belongs in the same way he did in 2012.
“He did some hitting with (Dustin) Pedroia (in the offseason),” said Middlebrooks’ sister Lacey, an ex-softball player at Tulsa and now an assistant softball coach at the University of Buffalo. “Things weren’t going right and he called Pedroia. So they’ve studied it a lot trying to figure out what are his weaknesses and how does he turn those into a strength.”
Although the free-swinging Middlebrooks doesn’t fit Boston’s grind-it-out offensive style, he does possess a skill the Sox need. He is just 25 and power hitters aren’t exactly in abundance these days.
The third baseman burst onto the scene in 2012, batting .288 with a .325 on-base percentage, .509 slugging percentage, 15 homers and 54 RBIs in 286 plate appearances before suffering a season-ending broken right wrist.
Last year was a disaster. He was demoted to Pawtucket in June, returned to Boston in August and ended up losing the starting job to Bogaerts during the American League Championship Series. Middlebrooks finished with a .227 with a .271 on-base percentage, .425 slugging percentage, 17 homers and 49 RBIs in 374 plate appearances.
James projects Middlebrooks to post a .310 on-base percentage and .490 OPS in ‘14. When you think about it, those are reasonable expectations for a free swinger who possess the type of power Middlebrooks does.
“The projection for Middlebrooks is not (aggressive),” James noted. “An aggressive projection for Middlebrooks would be that he would hit .290 with 40 home runs. A pessimistic projection would be that he will continue to play the way he played last year. We have projected him about halfway between those two.”
DOING THE MATH
James’ book mentioned 22 players with a projected OPS of more than .800 including many even te most diehard fans might not know.
He wrote about the list, “I don’t even know who in the hell some of those people are, and I’ll guarantee you that half of them won’t make their rosters out of spring training. THOSE are aggressive projections.”
Last year, James was fairly accurate with his projections for Red Sox players but missed on Middlebrooks, who he pegged to bat .277 with 29 homers, 99 RBIs and an .805 OPS.
“All players go up and down except Henry Aaron and Bobby Abreu, who were exactly the same every year,” James noted. “If a player has an .900 OPS one year, .700 the next, we project him to be at .800 the third year.”
BEYOND THE MATH
Middlebrooks and his sister have spent countless hours discussing hitting including last summer when Lacey lived in Boston while completing an internship and serving as one of the ball girls at Fenway Park.
“A lot of it was just sitting back and being a listener — letting him talk about what he felt with his swing on good and bad days,” Lacey said. “I feel like it’s pretty important to be able to sit there and let someone get it out and then say, ‘What do you feel when your swing is good vs. what do you feel when it’s bad?’ And sometimes it’s more mental than any adjustment that needs to be made with the swing.”
She said some days on drives to Pawtucket the two of them didn’t say anything.
“And I think what made it harder for him was he knew he was unhealthy and that was what was causing so much of the trouble,” said Lacey, who talks with Will daily.
Middlebrooks put on 12 pounds of muscle during the offseason and he’s healthy after dealing with a sore lower back and bruised ribs last summer.
“His goal was, for one, to put on the weight because he was now healthy and he could do so,” Lacey said. “And he’s gotten quicker and stronger. That was his main focus. He believes the hitting will come along with it.”