FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There had been other times in his baseball career when Will Middlebrooks couldn't see what others could. But never before had that notion been so literal.
In the past, as when Lowell manager Gary DiSarcina sought to light a fire under a player who seemed to be drifting uncertainly through his first pro season in 2008, there were times when the third baseman needed an intervention reminding him of his far-reaching talents, his potential future as a game-changer. He needed those exhortations in order to shape his vision of possibility, and the way he'd go about pursuing it.
This was different. This was about Middlebrooks needing to improve his vision of the baseball.
Middlebrooks doesn't have bad eyesight. He's never required glasses, sees the road fine when driving. But it's one thing to be able to see cars on the road moving at legal speeds, quite another to see a sphere of less than three inches in diameter hurtling at speeds of 80-100 mph from a distance of about 55 feet.
And so, the discovery that he possessed 20/30 vision in his left eye and 20/25 vision in his right -- slightly below the average of the normal population, considerably below that of an average baseball player -- suggested a significant revelation. Middlebrooks spent the last week of spring training in a near constant state of applying eyedrops while trying to adjust to the feel of his new contact lenses, which provide him with the 20/15 vision that typically characterizes baseball players.
But on the field, there appeared no discomfort with his new contacts. Quite the contrary.
Though Middlebrooks went 0-for-2 in the Red Sox' final spring exhibition game on Saturday, he represented his team's most head-turning spring performer outside of Grady Sizemore. He concluded the spring by hitting .360 with a .385 OBP, .680 slugging mark, four homers, two walks and, perhaps most intriguingly, just three strikeouts.
Ultimately, the numbers were fine, but potentially irrelevant. But what he showed in the batter's box that resulted in that gaudy statistical line and the consistently powerful contact to all fields suggested the potential for a step forward, perhaps a considerable one.
"He's been very impressive," said Sox manager John Farrell. "The thing that stands out to me the most is his willingness to take borderline pitches and not expand as we've seen in the past. He has talked openly about a different approach at the plate. I would let him talk about that. But it's translating into much more productive at-bats, even when he gets down in the count, we've seen a number of base hits up the middle with two strikes. He's started to wear contacts as well. Let's face it, that, to me, has shown a tangible difference, and he's seeing the ball better."
Middlebrooks acknowledged that, with the benefit of comparison, he realizes that he hadn't been able to pick up the spin on good sliders at the major league level. He's been discovering that, unbeknownst to him, his depth perception was a bit off; he's rediscovering his visual world with contacts, adjusting to a new view of things.
In the batter's box, Middlebrooks said that he was able to trust his eyes this spring, spent less time guessing what pitch might be coming in given counts. He could react rather than having to anticipate, with an entirely different demeanor in the batter's box.
"I feel calm. There's nothing tense about me right now. I feel like, I don't know how to put it into words. I just feel calm," said Middlebrooks. "There's no rush, there's no, 'I have to swing here,' there's no predetermined swings. If I don't swing and it's a strike, it's not because I wasn't ready. It's because it wasn't where I was looking.
"It's just more of a confidence about my approach, more faith in it, I guess. It's tough to talk about. I just feel like I'm swinging at exactly what I want to swing at," he continued. "I'm just not guessing. I'm letting my eyes work with my hands and just trusting them."
Middlebrooks has been seeing things differently in the box this year. And observers of the 25-year-old have seen him differently this year.
The calm that he's felt as a hitter has pervaded all of his work this spring. He looks relaxed and more secure in his abilities, regardless of whether it's holding a bat, in the field or even in the clubhouse. He's been more certain, more purposeful in his routines and his preparation for games.
Take batting practice: This spring, Middlebrooks has been taking a principled approach to using one round to drive balls to right field, another to stay up the middle before opening up to employ his well above-average pull power. It's the sort of controlled approach that David Ortiz -- who was in Middlebrooks' batting practice group for much of the spring -- uses to maintain a foundation for an all-fields approach that takes full advantage of rare line-to-line power.
"We know he has the pull pop. Everybody gets it. When he gets a ball in the inner half of the plate and he gets ahold of it, he's going to crush it," said Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen. "But that also leads to some bad habits at times when he's pulling off the outer half of the plate against right-handed breaking balls, things like that. But when he's staying through the ball to the opposite field, he's going to stay on the fastball and the breaking ball better. When he's doing that, he's a much better hitter."
Middlebrooks isn't the only one who suggests that he's achieved a level of calm while hitting. Assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez, who has worked with him since he signed out of high school in 2007, sees a hitter whose approach, pitch recognition and demeanor has been better than anything he's seen before.
"He's not afraid. I think the main thing with Middlebrooks is how strong he's getting from the mental side," said Rodriguez. "He always had the ability to hit the ball out of the field; it doesn't matter what part of the field. He had the ability to control the strike zone, to do a lot of good things, but I think confidence was not a big part of his game. He was searching, trying to do more, instead of trusting what he's got and sticking with something to allow him to compete at that level."
"This guy's been as consistent as anyone on the team, especially from the mental part," said Rodriguez. "Some at-bats, he gets out of it but the next at-bat he's back to what he's working on. That's the sign of a guy who's improved. … When he's getting his pitch, he's not missing it."
That's well and good in spring training, of course, but it remains to be seen whether or how it might translate once the curtain lifts on the start of the year. After all, there's virtually no regular season predictive power to spring training performances.
But what the Red Sox and the baseball world have seen this spring is a reminder. Yes, Middlebrooks endured considerable struggles in 2013, but while that raised questions about the likelihood that he could emerge as a cornerstone player, it didn't alter the potential that he could become just that for the Sox. If the 2013 season represented the necessary lesson of adversity to permit him to build upon his wildly promising 2012 campaign, then the Red Sox could still have a very good player on their hands.
"A monster," one American League evaluator suggested of Middlebrooks' potential, based on what he'd seen from him in the spring.
"The one thing that will never be replaced is the physical tools that he has. This is a guy with well above-average raw power. Right-handed power is a very difficult commodity to find in the game," said Farrell. "And he's in a really good place right now."
As the season gets ready to commence, Middlebrooks is in a position where he can look forward and, perhaps, see a clearer vision of his future than he's ever glimpsed before.