Middlebrooks expects to bounce back in 2014
Third baseman impresses coaches with approach, demeanor on and off the field
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Will Middlebrooks knows now that he let everything go too fast for him last year.
As the adversity piled up -- from the nagging injuries to the declining numbers to the stunning return to the Minor Leagues -- his mind seemed to be moving faster than some of the fastballs he was trying to hit.
Now, after having the time to decompress and put himself back together, Middlebrooks exudes the type of quiet confidence and determination that should pave the way for a bounceback season.
"You can see it," said Red Sox third-base coach/infield instructor Brian Butterfield. "You can see the way he walks around. You can see from the individual conversations you have with him. He has a little bit of a different tenor right now and it's a good one. After I talk to him for a little while, I walk away and I say, 'That's good. I like everything that came out of his mouth and I like the way he's walking.' He's very quiet and he's very workmanlike. I love where he's at right now."
Middlebrooks loves where he's at also, and that's why he wasn't going to let a nagging right middle finger injury stop him from taking a bus to Port Charlotte on Sunday morning to hit fifth against Rays ace David Price.
Originally, Middlebrooks was scratched from the travel squad. But after a quick check-in with the trainers, the third baseman was back on the trip. The way he's feeling these days, Middlebrooks can't wait to get to the field.
As it turns out, his day was short-lived. Middlebrooks felt just enough discomfort to come out after two innings. But it's just a minor Spring Training nag.
Overall, Middlebrooks feels primed and ready for the 2014 season.
"The body feels good, I feel good," Middlebrooks said on Saturday. "I've kind of dumbed things down. I've simplified things. Just seeing the ball and hitting it. That's about it. It's pretty simple."
Simplicity is what makes a baseball player thrive. It's when the mind gets cluttered that the slumps start to build.
You don't have to tell this to Middlebrooks because he lived it last year.
"That was tough," Middlebrooks said. "It extended through seven months. The ups and downs, the physical stuff, it just kind of snowballed on me. I learned a lot of ways to keep the snowballing from happening. I'm looking forward to a new year."
If you've already labeled Middlebrooks as an overly-aggressive hitter who gets himself out at times, the young slugger might have something to say about that.
Here is what Middlebrooks is most proud of thus far in Spring Training.
"The one thing that sticks out to me is I've swung at one pitch outside of the zone this spring," said Middlebrooks. "It was a slider I check swung on and I ended up hitting a changeup into the gap for a double later that at-bat. I'm not getting tricked up there. I'm seeing it, I'm seeing every pitch. I'm not guessing and just letting my eyes and hands work together."
In this era of on-base percentage, Middlebrooks is sometimes criticized for not excelling in that category.
"I get that," said Middlebrooks. "If you're on base, you're going to score or you have a better chance to score. It makes sense, I get it. I'm sure just with consistency and an approach, you're going to walk more, you're going to lay off those [nasty] pitches that are close and not ground out on them. Maybe take them for a ball, if they're a strike, they're a strike. They're not going to repeat those pitches over and over again, so you're going to get a pitch to hit."
As he enters his third Major League season, Middlebrooks is all of 25 years old, with most of his career still in front of him.
While struggling last year, Middlebrooks finally realized that everybody struggles at some point. Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, the two most accomplished hitters the Red Sox have, were the best at conveying that point to Middlebrooks.
"I learned a lot more last year than I did my first year when I hit .290," said Middlebrooks. "It's just part of it -- it's part of growing as a player. I talked to Pedey and all these guys in here, they said, 'We've all been through it, we've all struggled. At this level, it's going to happen at one point or another'. It's a select few guys who haven't, those guys you see with a plaque in Cooperstown.
"Even those guys, -- look at David, as great as he is, he's had months where he didn't do well. It's just part of the game. Those pitchers are out there for a reason. You just have to stay as consistent as you can. I know as vague as that sounds, just being consistent with your plan and your confidence level is the key."
Once the games start for real, the Red Sox will start finding out for sure what kind of player they have at third base this season. Thus far, the indicators are encouraging.
"I think he's having a very good camp," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "It's been very encouraging on the swings that he's taken. He looks confident in the box. He's driving the ball. His work has been outstanding. He was challenged one day over there in Jupiter defensively. But I think he's in a pretty darn good place right now overall."