Will Middlebrooks appears to have diagnosed the problem. But does that mean that a solution is within reach?
The 25-year-old is coming off of a 2013 campaign in which he hit .227 with a .271 OBP and .425 slugging mark. He showed the ability to hammer the ball -- evident in his 17 homers in just over a half season's worth of games (94) -- and there were glimmers of the middle-of-the-order potential that seemed so apparent in 2012, particularly during an impressive run upon his return from Triple-A in August and early September.
But the sophomore also demonstrated a lack of selectivity that opposing pitchers exploited. He walked just 20 times (5.4 percent of plate appearances) with 98 whiffs (26.2 percent), with a swing-early-and-often offensive approach that lent itself to rough stretches.
He's been working this spring to make the needed alterations to level out his performance.
"Just recognizing what I do well and what I don’t do well -- and not swinging at what I don’t do well," Middlebrooks told reporters of what he's working to accomplish this spring. "I was over-aggressive. I don’t know if I was trying to hit home runs but I was just trying to hit the ball hard. There wasn’t much thought process that went into my approach, I don’t think I was consistent with my approach so it was more or less going up there and trying to hit the ball hard, seeing it hitting it, and you can’t do that at this level, you have to have a plan because the pitcher’s going to have a plan."
Middlebrooks is hitting .320 with a .346 OBP, .600 slugging mark, a pair of homers, one walk and just two strikeouts in his 26 plate appearances thus far. Despite the relative absence of walks, the low number of strikeouts suggests progress in pitch recognition and control of the strike zone.
"The one thing that sticks out to me is I’ve swung at one pitch outside of the zone this spring. It was a slider I check swung on and I ended up hitting a change-up into the gap for a double later that at-bat," Middlebrooks told reporters. "I’m not getting tricked up there. I ‘m seeing it, I’m seeing every pitch, I’m not guessing and just letting my eyes and hands work together."
Middlebrooks suggests that such an approach will lend itself to more free passes even if he doesn't make walks a defining goal.
"I think more walks will come but I’d rather hit more doubles and homers," Middlebrooks told reporters. "They’re more fun."
It's difficult to argue with the contention that extra-base hits are more enjoyable than taking four pitches out of the strike zone. But what about Middlebrooks' contention that the "walks will come"? Is there basis for such a belief?
Evaluators often suggest that power develops later in a player's career, and that with a sound approach at the plate, players -- even some who show little pop early in their career -- will eventually learn to drive pitches. Kevin Youkilis represents an extreme example of the proposition.
But is the converse possible? Do players who show big power and little patience at the start of their careers tend to improve their plate discipline and on-base skills?
Middlebrooks is one of 21 players in baseball history who had 10 or more homers in his age 24 season while posting a sub-.300 OBP (minimum: 300 plate appearances). One of those players was Tony Clark, who hit .250/.299/.503 with 27 homers in 100 games for the Tigers in 1996, then enjoyed a breakout 1997 campaign in which he hit .276/.376/.500 with 32 homers in 159 contests -- enjoying a massive 77 point jump in OBP that made him a lineup force. It was Clark's plate discipline rather than his power that improved.
"I had power from the time I was six -- through Little League, through junior high," said Clark. "I was always able to hit the ball further than anyone else. That part was always there. But trying to figure out how my swing worked, how I needed to approach the plate or being a student of the game, that I wasn't. It took me a while to get there."
It's worth noting that there was uniqueness to Clark's progression. He was a giant 6-foot-7 switch-hitter whose playing time in the minor leagues was limited by the fact that he played Division 1 basketball at San Diego State and the University of Arizona, so comparing Clark to Middlebrooks is hardly an apples-to-apples undertaking. Moreover, Clark represented the most extreme example of a player in the 10 homer/sub-.300 OBP club to make a plate discipline breakthrough; no one else from that group had an OBP in his age 25 season that exceeded .333.
Still, Clark offers an indication that a considerable one-year jump in on-base skills is at least possible, if not necessarily likely. Of course, using the sub-.300 OBP club is somewhat limiting given that there's some luck and randomness with batting averages (and hence OBPs) on a year-to-year basis. The frequency with which a player walks, on the other hand, represents a true outcome, a more accurate barometer of a player's patience.
Middlebrooks walked in 5.4 percent of his plate appearances, 33 percent below the American League average walk rate of a free pass in 8.1 percent of plate appearances. He is one of 116 players in baseball history to hit at least 10 homers in an age 24 season in which he walked in 6 percent or fewer plate appearances.
The group includes a bunch of spectacular players -- including future Hall of Famers and MVPs -- who were extremely aggressive. The list of players with walk rates of 6.0 percent or worse and double-digit homer totals at age 24 includes seven Hall of Famers: Orlando Cepeda, Yogi Berra, Ducky Medwick, Willie Stargell, Andre Dawson, Bill Mazeroski and Robin Yount. A number of recent stars also fell into this category, with players like Nomar Garciaparra, Magglio Ordonez, Aramis Ramirez, Pudge Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Carl Crawford. That list offers a reminder that players can be standouts even if they aren't patient.
But how do such players typically progress from their age 24 to age 25 seasons? Of that group of 116 players, five were in their age 24 season last year, so it's impossible to see how those players progressed at 25.
But of the other 111 players, as a group, it's hard to see much offensive progress between the age 24 and age 25 seasons. At age 24, the group combined to hit .280 with a .317 OBP and .448 slugging mark while walking in 5.0 percent of plate appearances. At age 25, the players produced a line of .280/.324/.444 with a walk rate of 6.0 percent.
Of course, players aren't merely averages. Players' paths are distinct and can vary widely, and so it's worth noting that players can make major jumps in OBP between their age 24 and 25 seasons. The largest jump was made by Austin McHenry, who went from a .316 OBP at age 24 to a .393 mark at age 25. He is one of 11 players (9.9 percent) in the ensemble of impatient power hitters to see his OBP go up by 50 points or more; another 13 players (11.7 percent) had their OBP go up by 30-49 points, while another 21 (18.9 percent) had an OBP increase of 10-29 points.
So, history suggests that players like Middlebrooks can enjoy meaningful improvements in OBP, with roughly one in five players in this category seeing an improvement of at least 30 points. But, of course, to be a valuable member of the Sox lineup, he'll need to do just that while looking to build on his .271 mark of a year ago.
And, of course, there's no guarantee of improvement. Indeed, 57 of the 111 players (a slight majority) saw their on-base percentages go down between their age 24 and 25 seasons. And if Middlebrooks falls into that category, then it's difficult to imagine him lasting a full season as the Sox third baseman -- one year after he lost his job as the team's everyday player at the hot corner twice (first to Jose Iglesias in June, then to Xander Bogaerts in the postseason).
But right now, in spring training, it's not the downside that's most apparent. Spring offers the possibility of change and improvement, particularly for a player as young and talented as Middlebrooks. And so, the Sox view him not as a statistic, but as a living, breathing player who is showing the capacity to understand his limitations and improve.
"I think last year we saw some at-bats where maybe he was pressing a little bit, maybe trying to make up for some previous at-bats where it would cause him to be a little overaggressive or expand the strike zone," Sox manager John Farrell told reporters. "That willingness to swing, pitchers didn't have to challenge him all that much. He would chase some breaking balls off the plate, which we've seen this year, particularly recent at-bats where he's not offering on a borderline breaking ball, which I think is a really encouraging sign. I think that just speaks to his comfort and relaxation in the box right now.
"I think he's having a very good camp," Farrell added. "It's been very encouraging on the swings that he's taken. He looks confident in the box. He's driving the ball. … I think he's in a pretty darn good place right now overall."
The impact on the Red Sox if Middlebrooks can remain there would be considerable.