It would be a mistake to say that the Red Sox have failed to draft and develop their own homegrown power hitters.
After all, Jacoby Ellsbury, a 2005 first-round draft pick, exploded for 32 homers a year ago. Kevin Youkilis had as many as 29 homers in 2008, and over a three-year period from 2008-10, he had the highest OPS of anyone in the American League and the second highest slugging percentage. Still, Ellsbury and Youkilis were, in a way, accidents.
At the time that Ellsbury was taken in the first round of the 2005 draft, the Sox were optimistic that he possessed double-digit home run potential, but even 20 roundtrippers would have seemed a wildly optimistic projection. He was taken for his electricity on the bases and in the field, and for his ability to turn quality at-bats into line drives sprayed around the field.
Youkilis, despite an All-American career at the University of Cincinnati, came with no prospect profile. At best, he seemed like someone who would be able to deliver line drives and take walks, but who lacked the athleticism to do much of anything else. He represented a player who was cheap; as a college senior taken in the eighth round, he received a bonus of just $12,000. Like Ellsbury, the late-career arrival of his power represented a startling development that virtually no one anticipated.
That being the case, Will Middlebrooks represents something that the Red Sox have not had in years. Not since the days of Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn in the 1990s have the Red Sox been drawn to a prospect in the draft due to his power potential and then had him live up to those lofty expectations in Boston.
But at just 23, Middlebrooks is making good on precisely what the Red Sox saw from him as an 18-year-old at Liberty Elau High School back when they scouted him in the build-up to the 2007 draft. He continued the remarkable opening act of his career on Saturday night while helping to lead the Sox to an 8-4 win over the Braves, going 3-for-4 while blasting a home run (his ninth) and double while driving in two runs.
If sustainable -- and that is a big if, as opposing teams will now circle him as the player whom they must not permit to beat them, and redouble their scouting efforts in pursuit of his kryptonite -- his opening career act requires the context of history to be appreciated.
He has nine homers in his first 40 career games, most by a Red Sox in his first 40 career games in at least 25 years. He now has 33 RBI, the most by an American Leaguer in his first 40 career games since Wally Joyner drove in 38 for the Angels in 1986 (thus raising the question whether we are on the brink of “Willy’s World” in Boston).
Not since 1950 Rookie of the Year Walt Dropo burst onto the scene with 40 RBI in his first 40 games has a Red Sox been able to serve as such a dramatic run producer at the start of his career arc. Had he been up and playing on an everyday basis since the beginning of the season, Middlebrooks might have had a shot at Dropo’s franchise record of 34 homers as a rookie; despite spending the first month of the year in Pawtucket and facing some sporadic playing time since Youkilis’ return from the DL, he is still on pace for 27 homers this year.
And, oh, by the way, after going 10-for-14 with three doubles and three homers in his last five games, he is hitting .331 with a .368 on-base percentage, .592 slugging mark and .960 OPS.
“Like all good hitters, he’s seeing the ball well. He’s taking the low breaking ball and spitting on it most of the time. If he swings at it the first time, he’s taking it the next time he sees it. He’s getting the ball in a zone and hitting it hard,” said manager Bobby Valentine. “He was doing that in the minor leagues, too. We’ll just see how he handles the ups and downs of a long season.
“But he’s a good player,” added Valentine. “No one is this hot, but, like we said, a lot of times, those home-run hitters bunch them. The last thing you want to do is get him out of the lineup when he’s hitting home runs.”
Whereas the power of Ellsbury and Youkilis represented something of a revelation, however, in the case of Middlebrooks, it represents the fulfillment of precisely the sort of projections that the team had for him as a high schooler. The team -- led by the scouting efforts of associate scout Jay Oliver and area scout Jim Robinson -- was drawn to a player with the athleticism to be a football and baseball star in high school and who showed the ability to obliterate a baseball.
“Walking out and seeing him, he stood out physically: Big, lean, athletic, had a cannon for an arm as soon as you put a ball in his hand and could see him throw,” Robinson once recalled. “And he had raw power. He had big raw power. I can remember seeing him in a workout at Rangers Stadium that summer prior to his senior year, and he was just launching them into the stands there with a wooden bat.”
Because Middlebrooks was a two-sport athlete who passed on the baseball showcase circuit in order to play football, the Sox understood that he would represent a somewhat raw project who was unlikely to jump on a developmental fast track. Nonetheless, the team was willing to wait.
After all, by the time of the 2007 draft, the dynamics of the game were undergoing a significant shift. In a new era in which players were being tested for performance-enhancing drugs, power was an increasingly rare commodity. And so, the evident ability of Middlebrooks to threaten the bleachers at such a young age made him stand out.
Robinson recalled that, on the 20-80 scouting scale (with 50 being average, and 80 being a grade conferred upon no more than a handful of players), the Sox projected Middlebrooks as ranking near the high end of that scale.
“We gave him a 70 future power, which translates to 25-30 home runs a year, if it all comes together,” said Robinson. “He has a lot of raw power. Right off the bat, you’re looking at a high school kid who you’re going to give at least an average grade to plus, right off the bat. He’s got plenty of raw power. And still, you see him among prospects and pro guys who are players, he has really a unique sound when he connects.”
That is becoming increasingly apparent in a Red Sox debut that has been little short of jaw-dropping. And, it is worth noting, while the Sox thought that Middlebrooks would one day flash considerable power -- when they took him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, the team considered him a sandwich-round talent who slipped due only to questions of his signability -- no one anticipated how fast it would come at the big league level.
After all, entering the year, team officials were hopeful that a strong year in Triple-A Pawtucket could position Middlebrooks for a potential late-season call-up. Perhaps, they thought, he could contribute in September, or sometime in the second half.
He blistered past those projections when he started the year in Pawtucket by hitting .333 with a .380 OBP, .677 slugging mark, 1.057 OPS and nine homers in 24 games. At the time, even when he earned his promotion to the big leagues (thanks to the injury to Kevin Youkilis) on May 5, those sort of video game numbers seemed almost impossible to replicate at the major league level.
Middlebrooks hasn’t posted quite those outrageous numbers -- he is, after all, facing major league pitching now -- but he’s come remarkably close, and over a larger sample. And there is evidence to suggest that it’s sustainable.
After all, Middlebrooks isn’t someone who flails in a desperate effort to generate pop. He has a low-effort swing, but his strength is such that even his line drive approach results in the ball jumping off the bat, as when his two-strike swing on Thursday sent a ball rocketing into the bleachers, and when his easy line drive to left-center in the first inning on Saturday resulted in a rocket over the scoreboard and off the Wall for an RBI double in the bottom of the first on Saturday.
“His combination of skills and ability to put it together is pretty special. For a young guy, the ball comes off his bat different. It comes off a little harder than most people,” said teammate Mike Aviles. “That’s something you can’t teach. That’s his swing, his strength -- he has wiry strength, but he’s also just a strong guy. The ball comes off his bat different. He’s definitely going to be a good player for a long time. I can see it.”
Aviles is not alone. Indeed, the gifts of Middlebrooks are now unmistakable. The promise that Robinson and the Red Sox scouting staff glimpsed five years ago is now glaringly obvious to the player who has now asserted himself as the Red Sox third baseman, likely for years to come.