Most 24-year-olds with less than 400 career major league at-bats who start the season hitting .195 through 30 games stare a demotion right in the face. Not Will Middlebrooks. The Red Sox third baseman must play his way out of his current slump.
Middlebrooks has struggled mightily to begin the year. In addition to hitting below the Mendonza Line — his .195 average is ninth-worst among American League qualifiers — Middlebrooks owns a .233 on-base percentage (third-worst) and a negative 0.9 offensive wins above replacement (second-worst). His 36 strikeouts have him tied with Adam Dunn — a notorious strikeout king — for the sixth-most in the AL, and his fielding has also been suspect of late.
In other words, you could make a case that Middlebrooks is currently the AL’s worst third baseman, from a statistical standpoint. (Not exactly cause for a festive Cinco de Mayo.)
Let’s keep in mind, obviously, that we’re dealing with the small sample size of 120 plate appearances, and that Middlebrooks — only in his sophomore season — is still developing offensively. Given the way he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2012, it’s easy to overlook how raw he still is, and perhaps we all entered this season with expectations that were slightly higher than they should have been. Middlebrooks still needs to produce, though, as the Red Sox could eventually find themselves in some trouble if he fails to come around.
The Red Sox, according to WEEI.com’s Alex Speier, haven’t even begun to contemplate sending Middlebrooks down for a bit more seasoning. The reason is because there isn’t much to consider. As bad as Middlebrooks has looked through Boston’s first 30 games, there simply isn’t a better alternative within the organization.
If there was a viable option to replace Middlebrooks, perhaps sending him down would be something the Red Sox would consider if his slump lingered into June or beyond. Since the organization’s third base depth is extremely thin, it’s clear Middlebrooks is here to stay. That may have been the case regardless, but the lack of substitutes all but ensures he’ll push through his ongoing slump at the big league level.
It’s probably for the best. Middlebrooks proved last season that he’s capable of feasting on major league pitching. While some friendly, intrasquad competition often serves as motivation, it can also make it more difficult for a struggling young player to find a comfort zone. Middlebrooks at least has the luxury of being able to focus on his game without looking over his shoulder.
“I’ve dealt with [a slump] like this at almost every level,” Middlebrooks told reporters after Saturday’s game in Texas. “It’s nothing new to me. It’s just a bigger stage now and winning is important. Luckily, my teammates have been picking me up and I’ll pick it up pretty soon. I’m just as tired of it as everyone else is. As cold as I’ve been, I’ll be just as hot [when I get going].”
Middlebrooks, as he noted, has endured some sort of slump at every level, and the common denominator is that he managed to overcome all of them. Clearly, this is going to be the most difficult to overcome given the heightened competition, but he seems to have the confidence necessary to turn things around in a hurry.
It also appears that Middlebrooks’ passion matches his confident swagger. Often times, there are talented players who, to their detriment, assume things will suddenly click. Middlebrooks, on the other hand, seems to be motivated by what his struggles could ultimately mean for the Red Sox.
“I’m human. I’m pissed,” he told reporters after Saturday’s 1-for-4 performance, which put him at 3-for-19 for the road trip. “I don’t like letting my team down. Who likes to hit .190 when you’re a .300 hitter? Not me. I hate it. I don’t want to let my team down anymore.”
To this point, Middlebrooks has let his team down in that his contributions have been minimal. The Red Sox have weathered the storm to the tune of a 20-10 start, though, so his breakout — assuming there is one — could actually come at a perfect time for Boston.
Middlebrooks prides himself on a “wake and rake” mantra. But nobody said waking up is easy.