I saw Middlebrooks play third base and hit for power in the 2011 Arizona Fall League. In 13 games and 56 at-bats, he hit four home runs and drove in 11 runs with a .250 batting average. His physical presence seemed to scream, "Hey, check me out. I can hit." I did. I liked what I saw.
Exhibiting a very athletic 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, Middlebrooks showed the type of strength and power that had been advertised. He flashed an aggressive swing as he punished fastballs and hanging breaking pitches. I didn't see much selectivity or pitch recognition, and there were times his swing got very long and he got himself out trying to hit balls out of the zone or beyond his plate coverage. But without a doubt, the raw offensive potential was evident. He hit the ball hard and didn't get cheated at the plate. Like many good power hitters, he had a feast with fastballs.
Middlebrooks has a very quick first step and above-average agility at third base. His range, his arm strength and his throwing accuracy are all Major League quality. Of late, it seems the combination of power hitting, good offensive mechanics and quality defense are becoming more difficult to find at third base. It will be that combination that should sustain Middlebrooks' career.
In many ways, Middlebrooks reminds me of a young Troy Glaus. Glaus was 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and had similar upper body strength. Glaus may not have had quite the same first-step quickness, but he could drive the ball out of the park with a similar path through the ball that I have seen so far from Middlebrooks. Like many power hitters, they both have had a tendency to strike out too much. And Middlebrooks, like Glaus, is woefully slow on the bases.
An aspect of Middlebrooks' game in need of improvement is his patience at the plate. He has to see more pitches and be much more selective. He will have to learn how Major League pitchers are trying to get him out and make the necessary adjustments. For now, however, he is prone to being a free swinger. Once he learns to recognize secondary pitches and picks up the spin of the ball more quickly out of the pitcher's hand, the task of making consistent contact will be easier. Good athletes learn to adjust.
Over three levels in the Minors last season, Middlebrooks combined to hit .285 with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs. He also stole 10 bases, struck out 114 times and had 26 walks. The last two statistics illustrate his most prominent weaknesses.
After 1,706 Minor League plate appearances covering 416 games in parts of five seasons, the Red Sox were convinced Middlebrooks could handle the pressure and higher quality performances that distinguish the quality of play at the Major League level.
His current trial with Boston illustrates the importance of organizational depth. With Middlebrooks showing the ability to hit quality pitching as he progressed through their system, the Red Sox could afford to give the 23-year-old right-handed hitter a chance to practically finish his development at the Major League level. Filling in for Youkilis, Middlebrooks is being given the opportunity to hit quality breaking balls and learn the subtle nuances of his craft. The best pitchers in the world are throwing high-velocity fastballs to every quadrant of the strike zone in an effort to send him back to the bench with an empty at-bat.
When Youkilis returns, does Middlebrooks return to Triple-A Pawtucket? Do the Red Sox use a mix-and-match approach to their lineup that includes Youkilis, Middlebrooks, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez in a rotation of the third-base, first-base and designated-hitter roles? Such a plan may keep all their players fresh for the rigors of a long season. The presence of Middlebrooks makes such a plan possible. Especially with the recent injury issues of Youkilis and the fact that Ortiz will be unavailable as a designated hitter in National League parks during Interleague Play.
I have often listened to the words of high school coaches and athletic directors when scouting players. Yes, many tend to exaggerate regarding their own players. But when Brown said Middlebrooks was one of the best athletes he had ever seen, that meant something to me. I went to see for myself. I determined that Middlebrooks is, indeed, a very fine athlete. Now, the Red Sox and their fans will reap the benefits of his ability. Probably for a long time to come.