In his first spring training with the Red Sox in 2010, young shortstop Jose Iglesias would sometimes show up unannounced at the house of then-minor league hitting coordinator Victor Rodriguez, He wanted to discuss hitting, to learn, to think about what he needed to do to be successful.
Rodriguez has spent more time with and around Iglesias than nearly anyone in the Red Sox system. He saw him time after time from 2010-12 while offering roving instruction throughout the Sox system, and now he is with him in the big leagues as the Red Sox assistant hitting coach. And so, he qualifies as an expert on the hitting approach of the now-23-year-old.
Rodriguez has seen Iglesias try to replicate the swings of Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols; he has seen him chase breaking pitches in the dirt for days at a time; seen him go days or weeks without impacting the ball solidly. He has also seen the glimmers of promise, the stretches of a couple of weeks or even a month here and there where the man with the golden glove does not chase pitches but instead attacks only those in the strike zone. As much as anyone, he remained convinced of the potential in Iglesias' bat.
But he'd never seen or even imagined anything like what is currently transpiring. No one had.
With Will Middlebrooks working his way back from the DL, Iglesias -- while acclimating seamlessly to a new position -- is now armed with a 13-game hitting streak, a run of six straight games reaching base multiple times in the same game, an insane hitting line of a .446 average, .494 OBP and .581 slugging mark after a 2-for-4 day on Sunday that featured an infield grounder and a ringing double off the left field wall. And so, Rodriguez is asked, what does he see from the rookie.
The assistant hitting coach's eyebrows raise. He exhales in amazement.
"The consistency with his daily preparation, every swing that he takes, batting practice -- I've never seen it," said Rodriguez. "I've never seen that guy so focused, taking it at-bat by at-bat and knowing the importance of swinging at good pitches. I never saw that all the years that we had him in the minor leagues. He never showed that. The guy believes, and I think he trusts his approach at the plate. Every at-bat, it seems like he's put together a good at-bat. It's been a pleasant surprise.
"It's incredible," he added. "Even in the cage, he wants me to challenge him with the pitch location -- out of the strike zone, in the zone -- so he can swing at good pitches. It's not by accident. He's working at it. He's working at it everyday. Every swing he takes. If it's out of the strike zone, it's not even close -- he doesn't swing. It's amazing, the focus that he has day in and day out."
His plate appearances are fundamentally different from anything he's even hinted at in the big leagues. In 2011 and 2012, Iglesias saw an average of 3.43 pitches per plate appearance. Put simply, it seemed as if he was inclined to swing at everything, to the point where the Sox would throw the take sign on him just to force him to start recognizing pitches, hoping that he wouldn't start every plate appearance 0-1.
That's no longer the case. The team doesn't feel compelled to intervene in his plate appearances. The rookie has earned their trust, and with good reason. He's now averaging 3.98 pitches per plate appearance in 2013, including a whopping 4.18 per plate appearance since his recall as Middlebrooks' replacement.
The development is nothing short of stunning given how overmatched Iglesias looked while hitting .118/.200/.191 in 77 plate appearances in 2012.
"I think the at-bats that he had last year, even though the results [were disappointing], it helped for this year, knowing that the only way he was going to stick around was to put together good at-bats," said Iglesias. "We forced him to do things like take pitches. He didn't like it. But right now, he's doing it without forcing him because he knows it's the right thing.
"When he's getting his pitch, he's doing damage. He's driving the ball. He's not afraid to hit behind in the count, ahead in the count, with two strikes. He's looking for his pitch and when he gets it, he's going to do something with it."
Iglesias tries not to get carried away in his self-description. He suggests only, "I feel good. I feel like I'm putting up consistent [at-bats] every game. ... I'm seeing the ball good. I'm able to recognize pitches, put a good swing on it, work in the counts and just battle -- battle and be on base for the team."
But he acknowledges that his approach is different, that it has matured. He scans the Red Sox clubhouse and notes the positive impact that pitch-grinding veterans like David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli have had on the refinement of his own understanding of the batter's box.
"Every single day you see this guy hitting," Iglesias said, pointing to clubhouse neighbor Ortiz, "you learn. If you're not getting better as a player, it's because you don't want to, because if you watch these guys, and you know the way they've been consistent, you learn. That will help you a lot."
Iglesias is a different hitter now than he was a year ago. He is different now than he was in spring training, different even -- in terms of the consistency of his ability to barrel the ball -- than he was when he infield chopped his way to a 9-for-20 line in April.
He will not finish the year hitting .400 -- his .508 batting average on balls in play, a ridiculously high number (league average: .297) due to the remarkable frequency with which he has chopped hits into the narrow alley between third and short -- but he is likewise no longer overmatched. He looks like a player capable of hitting at the big league level. And given his spectacular glove, well, it would be hard to overlook his role in helping the Sox to a 16-6 record (.727 winning percentage) on those days where he's on the field.
So what does that mean? At a time when Middlebrooks is expected back from his rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket "soon" (according to manager John Farrell), what does the future hold for Iglesias?
First, there's this: Publicly, the Red Sox suggest that there is still a decision to be made regarding whether Iglesias remains in the big leagues in a utility role once Middlebrooks is healthy. Realistically, this is no decision at all. Iglesias will stay whenever Middlebrooks is activated.
Now that Iglesias has a demonstrated ability to play third at a spectacular level, and with a bit of exposure to second in the late innings of blowouts, there's not a lot of decision to be made about whether he or Pedro Ciriaco has the better chance of impacting the team. Ciriaco has not adapted well from his everyday backup role of a year ago to his pure utility/bench role this year. He's hitting .216/.293/.353 with a cover-your-eyes total of seven errors in 133 innings (the equivalent of 15 full games).
Middlebrooks, of course, struggled for much of the start of the year. He had been starting to heat up in May, drilling extra-base hits with some regularity prior to the lower back inflammation that led him to the DL and opened the door for Iglesias at a new position, but his overall numbers suggest a struggle in 2013: a .201 average, .234 OBP and .408 slugging mark.
Still, he's a young player who has a professional track record of responding well and even benefiting from adversity. There remains considerable upside for a player who represents a potential long-term building block for the Sox. There is no question, no uncertainty about his role.
"Will's our third baseman," said Sox manager John Farrell on Sunday. "That was outlined at the outset. We feel what's best for Will is best for us, and that's to get him not only with the health things behind him, which everything points to that being the case right now, that there's no more back issue, and for [him] to get on a little bit on a roll to come back to us.
"Yet at the same time," Farrell added, "Jose is doing an excellent job, and once Will's returned and the roster decision is made, if the scenario is that Jose is our utility guy, we've got to be sure that we rotate him through there to keep him in the mix."
Last week, Farrell said that Iglesias would have to play at least two games a week in order to justify keeping him in the big leagues rather than sending him back to Pawtucket to play everyday. The team can do that by managing the workload of its infield starters, using Iglesias to spell Middlebrooks, Stephen Drew and, if he ever relents and sits, Dustin Pedroia.
But, just as he is now wedging open a door that didn't appear to be cracked, there's a chance for Iglesias to force his way into playing time beyond just the two games a week scenario. Now more than two months into the season, the Sox have reached a point where career track record starts to carry less relevance than 2013 performance.
And so, it's been impossible for the team to overlook the fact that, while Iglesias has delivered consistent at-bats and remained torrid, shortstop Drew has been on a roller coaster for most of the year. He's hitting .234 with a .330 OBP and .409 slugging mark this year. Those numbers sound unimpressive, but a few caveats are in order:
-- The American League average line is .255/.320/.410 -- so Drew roughly lives up to that standard;
-- The league-average shortstop is hitting .252/.305/.368 -- so Drew is an above average offensive shortstop;
-- Drew is playing excellent defense, with most advanced metrics having him as one of the early-season standouts at the position due to excellent positioning and actions and flawlessly accurate throws;
-- After starting poorly in his return from a concussion that had him on the DL to open the year, Drew is now hitting .262/.356/.468 over his last 41 games dating to April 22.
There's quite a bit to suggest that Drew is more or less what the Sox hoped he'd be -- an above-average offensive and defensive shortstop. Of the 31 shortstops in the big leagues with at least 150 plate appearances this year, Drew ranks eighth in the (admittedly imperfect) category of Wins Above Replacement with a 1.5 WAR.
The Sox aren't about to bench Drew. Still, given that he's hitting .182 with a .258 OBP and .382 slugging mark against lefties (compared to a .259/.363/.422 line against righties), the Sox will likely get Iglesias playing time and manage Drew's workload by approximating a platoon at short.
The team is sensitive to the fact that Drew will be a free-agent this year, and that a playing-time split will not be to his market benefit; nonetheless, there's enough evidence not just from this year but also last (when Drew -- a career .238/.296/.399 hitter against lefties -- hit just .198/.260/.302 against southpaws in his return from an ankle fracture) to suggest that a platoon may be in the best interests of the team.
The Sox are contenders, currently enjoying a perch with the best record in the AL. Both Iglesias and Drew have been a part of the team's surge to this point, and both (along with Middlebrooks) will be part of it going forward. It remains to be seen precisely how the playing time is divided, but the season is now reaching a juncture where performance will dictate playing time.
"We have to stay flexible," said Farrell. "That's what internal competition is about. It drives everyone to be better. You don't want to stunt that. You don't want to take away from that or get in the way of it, really."
And right now, Iglesias appears to be very, very driven to show that he can not only stay in the big leagues, but that he is worth an ever-expanding opportunity even if/when the Red Sox roster returns to full health.