Will Middlebrooks ditched contacts, but difference-making contact keeps coming

April 30, 2014 - 8:18 pm

There is some danger in overreacting to what Will Middlebrooks has done in the infant stages of the season. After all, through a comparable number of at-bats last year, he looked like a lineup anchor thanks in no small part to a three-homer game in the sixth contest of the season. It was difficult at that stage of the year to imagine the struggles that awaited him. So there's the disclaimer. Still. The early impressions left by Middlebrooks, both in spring training, at the start of this season and then in the days since his return from the disabled list, have been singularly positive. The uncertainty and anxiety that seemed to accompany him to the batter's box last year -- and, consequently, off the field at times -- seems to have yielded to a sense of calm and self-possession, and with it, the possibility of a player capable of doing damage to opposing pitchers. Through eight games -- four before he landed on the DL with a calf strain, four since -- Middlebrooks is hitting .259 with a .375 OBP and .593 slugging mark. The OBP is a bit deceiving, as it reflects the fact that he's been hit by three pitches and that one of his two walks was intentional. The slugging percentage, on the other hand, accurately reflects the fact that when he's made contact, he's been hitting the snot out of the ball, with five of his seven hits going for extra bases (and two clearing the fence). In the very, very brief sample of 32 plate appearances, his strikeout rate is down slightly (22 percent, down from 26 percent a year ago), he's hitting everything in the air (giving his considerable power a chance to play), he's chasing fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (according to Fangraphs, he's swinging at 23.5 percent of pitches that aren't in the zone, down from a 30.4 percent chase rate last year) and he's making contact with balls that are in the strike zone (again according to Fangraphs, he's making contact with 90.5 percent of pitches he swings at that are in the strike zone, up from 84.0 percent last year). What do all those numbers suggest? Middlebrooks is swinging at better pitches to drive, and when he does, in the initial stages of this year, he's driving them more frequently. The data is backed by the visual impression. "I think he's seeing the ball more consistently. This went back to what we saw in spring training," said Sox manager John Farrell. "I think it's allowed him to remain confident, relaxed in the box. Those two things combined have minimized the number of times he's expanded the strike zone. It's good plate coverage, and it's a guy who's hitting with more confidence now than, at a time last year, when he seemed to press to make up for previous at-bats." Naturally, it would be easy to attribute the idea that Middlebrooks is seeing the ball better to the fact that he started using contact lenses in spring training. One problem with identifying that cause and effect: Middlebrooks isn't wearing the contacts anymore. "I'm not even wearing them," said Middlebrooks, who said that at some point he'd try wearing prescription Oakleys to mirror the improvement he sought in the contacts from 20/30 vision in his left eye and 20/25 in his right to 20/15 in both eyes. "I didn't like them. ... [But] it's not a big difference. I might be able to see things a little finer, but I can see fine without them." Yet even without corrective lenses, Middlebrooks says that he is seeing the ball better and that his pitch recognition is improved. How? "My focus is just better. I don't know why. I just, that was one of my things coming into this year, I don't want to waste an at-bat," said Middlebrooks. "I think I'm doing a better job this year of studying video, guys' tendencies, how they attack me, especially with runners in scoring position. That way I'm not just going up there blind. I have an idea of what they want to do to me, what they've done to be successful against me in the past. That always helps. If I can say, this guy in a full count doesn't like to throw me heaters, then yeah, I can spit on a borderline slider because in the back of my mind, I can be like, 'He might throw me that here.' I just put that on studying the game and studying video." Middlebrooks is carrying himself like someone who is more comfortable processing the speed of the game at the major league level, and for the Sox, the impact of his presence in the bottom of the order has paid immediate dividends. There have been other reasons as well, of course -- the return of Shane Victorino, improved performance from both A.J. Pierzynski and Jackie Bradley Jr. -- but since Middlebrooks (4-for-14 with two doubles and a homer since coming off the DL) returned, a Sox team that averaged just 3.9 runs per game in the first 23 contests of the year has pushed 23 runs (5.8 per game) across the plate in three games since his return. He has given the Sox a different look. Contacts are unnecessary to see the change. "To have Will in that bottom third, that presents a threat, that power threat," said Farrell. "More than anything, it doesn'€™t allow for that potential breather by a starting pitcher once they get through or into that bottom third of the order. We'€™ve done a better job of late with quality at-bats up and down the lineup."

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