Will Middlebrooks Be Good in 2014?

Rob Carr

People have been quick to heap up criticism on the young third baseman after a disappointing 2013, but could a savvy owner reap fantasy gold this year with Middlebrooks as their starter?

At the time of writing I cannot think of another more polarizing player at the hot corner in fantasy circles than Will Middlebrooks. One the one hand, he offers a tantalizing combination of power, swatting moon shots off the Monster, and hitting amongst the top batting lineup in baseball in 2013. On the other hand, no one is 100% sure whether or not he'll even get a full slate of at bats this year, what with Stephen Drew's ghost haunting the situation. What is reasonable to expect from Middlebrooks this year and do you want him on your roster?

THE REASONS YOU DRAFT WILL MIDDLEBROOKS

1. This is easy. The power. In 2013, there were 270 fewer homeruns hit league wide, ISO dipped from .151 to .143, and wOBA dipped to .314 (the lowest offensive production since 1989). Among third basemen from 2011-13 (min. 650 PAs), Middlebrooks posted the 6th best ISO and 11th best slugging percentage. He hits an above average amount of fly balls (37.3% career) without popping up much (5.9% career), and owns the 5th best HR/FB rate as well. His batted ball distance of 278 ft. leaves something to be desired, coming in around fellow mashers Michael Young and Manny Machado (read: sarcasm), and eight of his homers last year were of the "just enough" variety. However, considering he plays a lot of games in Fenway, Yankees Stadium, Rogers Centre, and Camden Yards he happens to be in the right region of the American League to let his power play up.

2. The potential counting stats. Even hitting near the bottom of a stacked lineup, the Red Sox scored 60 more runs than the next closest team, got on base more, and had a better slugging percentage than every one else. This means that with a full slate of plate appearances he could still approach 70 runs and 80 RBI, at his current projected 8-spot in the lineup. If he gets on a hot streak it's conceivable that he's moved up to the 6-hole and his stat totals could increase, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The bottom line is, due to no skill of his own Middlebrooks finds himself, again, in the midst of the perfect situation.

3. He's still relatively young, aged 26, so there's a sliver of a chance he can improve a bit in the power category although I don't see the approach changing much at this point.

THE REASONS YOU DON'T DRAFT WILL MIDDLEBROOKS

1. The approach is pretty awful. He doesn't walk (5% career) and he strikes out too much (25.5% career). As mentioned above, though, he doesn't hit an inordinate amount of ground balls, he gets the ball in the air, and he doesn't pop out much, all while keeping a league average line drive rate (21% career). So, it's not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition here but no one is going to mistake Middlebrooks for a high on-base, patient slugger. Bottom line is that he could fill the stat sheet and still cost you in the batting average, and on-base departments.

2. His playing time is in question. If Stephen Drew comes back he's not merely going to get paid millions of dollars to sit the bench. At the very least it will eat into Middlebrooks' at bats. Personally I still don't think that will happen but in the middle of draft season you have to take that into account.

3. He doesn't steal many bases, but then again, neither do most third basemen. That being said, there's an opportunity for 4-5 thefts to be had from him in 2014.

Finally, let's do a little player comparison here:

BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO Spd BABIP wOBA wRC+
Player A 5.00% 25.50% 0.254 0.294 0.462 0.756 0.208 3.1 0.295 0.324 100
Player B 8.80% 30.50% 0.230 0.300 0.438 0.738 0.208 2.6 0.288 0.319 102

BABIP GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB
Player A 0.295 1.12 20.80% 41.90% 37.30% 5.90% 18.90%
Player B 0.288 1.39 19.60% 46.70% 33.70% 5.10% 23.60%

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
Player A 30.10% 64.00% 45.80% 62.80% 82.40% 75.50% 46.20% 59.10% 11.00%
Player B 34.20% 69.70% 48.50% 52.70% 80.70% 68.90% 40.40% 60.50% 14.70%

Now look at these numbers carefully. Player A doesn't walk quite as much but he doesn't strike out as much either. He has hit for a higher average, similar OBP and ISO, and has been a better overall offensive player according to wOBA. He hits less ground balls, and more fly balls, and in general has a more consistent BABIP. Player B has a better HR/FB rate, no doubt, which is backed up by his batted ball distance being #3 overall in the league. However, Player A's overall approach is better as he makes more contact, whiffs less, and is less aggressive outside the strike zone. The interesting part is that Player B is being selected, on average, with the 81st overall pick, whereas Middlebrooks is being taken with the 220th pick, according to NESN. So, while it seems that no one has a problem drafting Player B (Pedro Alvarez), everyone seems to have a problem with Player A (our Will Middlebrooks).

For me, if you're willing to take a shot with Alvarez that early then you might as well take a shot much later in the draft with Middlebrooks. In no way am I comparing the power potential of these two, but Middlebrooks just happens to be in the right place at the right time and could be a bargain for your team this year.

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