Four years ago, Will Middlebrooks was setting the world on fire for the Boston Red Sox. From the time he came up to the big leagues in May until a hit-by-pitch broke his wrist in August, Middlebrooks hit .288/.325/.509 and mashed 15 home runs in just 75 games. People were already plenty excited about Middlebrooks’s power thanks to the indomitable Boston Prospect Hype Machine™. After Middlebrooks’s hot start, he looked like the sure third baseman of the future for the Red Sox.
Since then, though, Middlebrooks hasn’t been able to find that form. In two seasons for the Red Sox and one for the Padres following a trade for defensive specialist catcher Ryan Hanigan, Middlebrooks managed just a .213/.258/.363 batting line. He averaged a solid 19 home runs per 162 games in that stretch, but his inability to make contact has proven to be too much to overcome. In 240 games from 2013-2015, Middlebrooks struck out 228 times and only managed 174 hits.
Middlebrooks was one of a slew of post-hype sleeper pickups the Brewers made this offseason, along with players like Rymer Liriano, Keon Broxton, Ramon Flores, and Sean Nolin. With Aaron Hill dealt to the Red Sox just before the All-Star break, Middlebrooks will be the latest to get a chance in Milwaukee to show he still has the potential that made him stand out as a prospect.
Even in Middlebrooks’s best season, that rookie campaign for Boston, his plate discipline numbers were abysmal. He struck out 70 times in 75 games and drew just 13 walks, a 4.5 percent walk rate. His struggles in this department have been consistent throughout his career. In his four MLB seasons, his walk rate has fallen between four and seven percent, and his strikeout rate has always finished between 22 percent and 30 percent, in both cases much worse than the MLB average.
Middlebrooks’s performance with Milwaukee’s Triple-A club in Colorado Springs, where he hit .282/.308/.508 but had a 22.3 percent strikeout rate against just a 3.4 percent walk rate. That puts a ceiling on Middlebrooks’s potential to be sure, but big-time power solves lots of problems. San Diego, Middlebrooks’s last stop, was probably the worst possible park for his skillset, with its huge power alleys and oppressive marine layer making it one of the toughest parks in the league for power hitters.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, plays in almost the exact opposite fashion. Its small outfield makes it tough for contact hitters to find the outfield grass, but easy for power hitters to turn what would be easy warning track fly balls in other parks into home runs. Only Wrigley Field was a better home run park for right-handed batters according to Baseball Prospectus’s park factors last year.
The Brewers don’t need Middlebrooks to live up to his former hype. Warts and all, if Middlebrooks can produce the power he flashed at times in his career, he’ll be a worthwhile pickup even if his on-base percentage hovers around .300. At just 27 years old, his power production should still be at or near its peak. With the Brewers in sell mode, this is the perfect opportunity for both parties. Now we just have to see what Middlebrooks can do with it.