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May 2, 2013

Out of Left Field

Will Middlebrooks, and Beating Oneself

by Matthew Kory

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Remember Kevin Maas? Maas was a 25-year-old rookie first baseman for the Yankees who came up in late June 1990. He wasn’t a huge prospect until he hit eight home runs in his first month. Then he was. He went on to hit 13 more over the remainder of the season, with a .904 OPS, and a 150 OPS+. He was even intentionally walked 10 times. It was good enough for a second-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting, despite just 79 games played. 

So that was it, Maas was the next great Yankees slugger. Everyone bow down. Then 1991 happened. Maas hit 23 homers, but he needed twice as many plate appearances to do it. He put up a mediocre .220/.333/.390 slash line. There were certain pitches Maas just couldn’t hit when thrown in the right place. Opposing pitchers had learned them and Maas was unable to adjust. Two mediocre seasons later the Yankees cut him and, other than 64 plate appearances for the Twins in 1995, he was out of the majors for good. 
 
That is the cautionary tale for all rookies. Might take a week, might take an offseason, but major-league pitchers are so good that they’ll find something to get the hot rookie hitter out. Then they’ll keep doing it over and over and over (and over) until the rookie proves he can overcome it. If the rookie can’t adjust, can’t work the count, can’t foul off the pitcher’s pitches, can’t close up that hole, eventually he’ll be toast. 
 
Enter Will Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks came up mid-season last year and hit well. He wasn’t the slugger Maas was, but he knocked 15 homers and put up an exciting-for-a-23-year-old slash line of .288/.325/.509 in his first stint against major-league pitching. Middlebrooks was so good that the Red Sox gave incumbent third baseman Kevin Youkilis* to the White Sox like it was actual Kevin Youkilis giveaway day at Fenway Park and the White Sox were the only ones who showed up. 
 
*This was also done in part because then-manager Bobby Valentine decided Youkilis was too intense or was the devil, or maybe Youkilis touched his yogurt. Valentine saw Youkilis as an overly intense yogurt-touching devil. At least that’s a good reason to get rid of someone.
 
Middlebrooks isn’t Maas, so much as he is superficially Maas. He’s a guy with good success his rookie season who wasn’t (or hasn’t been) able to replicate it in his second season. Middlebrooks is hitting .194/.223/.418 (through Tuesday’s games). He has six homers. This is production below what most expected, including PECOTA, which (who?) saw a modest .258/.294/.448 with 15 homers. Middlebrooks’ current line over a full season would be worth less than last year’s half season; thus, the Maas comparison.
 
Like many right-handed power hitters, Middlebrooks’ power comes on inside pitches that he pulls into (or over) left field. 
 
 
That was 2012. The image is from the catcher’s point of view so the inside for Middlebrooks is on the left side of the image. You can see that’s where his power lies. If you throw something there, especially if it’s something hard, you’d better be prepared to lose it. Here’s 2013:
 
 
We’re dealing with much less data, but you can see it’s quite similar. Middlebrooks is still the same guy power-wise. He’s still looking for stuff on the inner half to crank. 
 
Here’s Middlebrooks’ latest home run, which came against Erik Bedard of the Astros. 
 
 
You can see the pitch ends up in the reddest of the red part of Middlebrooks’ power zone, waist high, inside corner of the strike zone. Sadly for Middlebrooks, most pitchers aren’t on the Astros. 
 
So Middlebrooks is still hitting fastballs in. Or is he? Here’s what Middlebrooks did with fastballs last season. 
 
 
He crushed the inside ones, but he also hit ones out over the plate and on the outer third of the plate. Basically, if it was waist level, there was a good chance he’d drive the ball. This year? 
 
 
Not so much. He’s been hitting the very inside stuff, but missing everything else. And these are just fastballs we’re looking at here. I’ll save you time and just tell you his charts for curveballs and change-ups are bluer than the bluest blue you’ve ever blued. 
 
So what’s the problem? Middlebrooks is, it turns out, seeing a pretty similar mix of pitches. He’s seen more changeups but at this stage that could just be because he’s seen more pitchers who are good at throwing changeups. The telltale fact is that he’s seeing more fastballs than he did last season. The difference is that this season he’s missing them. Last season he swung and missed on 17.6 percent of sliders, 21.1 percent of changeups, and 13.9 percent of curveballs, but only 4.7 percent of fastballs. This season, that last number is up to 10.6 percent. Again, we’re dealing with a smaller sample of data here, but for now it’s what we have. 
 
According to Baseball Info Solutions, Middlebrooks isn’t swinging at many more pitches outside the strike zone than last season. Instead, he’s simply missing more of the pitches in the zone. Not literally missing them – his contact rate is virtually identical to last year’s, at 83 percent – but missing his opportunities. Middlebrooks himself agrees. Tim Britton of the Providence Journal asked him about this very thing last week and he said, “I’m not overmatched. I’m not getting beat by pitchers. I’m beating myself.” 
 
If you’re a fan of Will Middlebrooks, that’s both encouraging and discouraging news. If you believe the 2012 Middlebrooks lurks somewhere in the deep recesses of the 2013 Middlebrooks, just waiting to be released by… something, then maybe this is good news. Pitchers haven’t figured Middlebrooks out. There is no Grand Unified Theory for getting Will Middlebrooks out that has gone around the league. The trouble is, one could argue, that that’s because they haven’t had to. Middlebrooks has in effect figured himself out. Then again, if it’s the simple matter of putting wood to horsehide then maybe that is encouraging news for Middlebrooks. He’s shown he has the skills before. But until he’s able to do so again, there’s no reason for opposing pitchers to try anything different against him. You don’t come up with the Grand Unified Theory if you don’t need one. So Will Middlebrooks isn’t Kevin Maas, but in a sense maybe that’s because Middlebrooks hasn’t quite made it that far yet. 
 

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Will Middlebrooks,  Kevin Maas

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