Feeling Uneasy About the Will Middlebrooks Era

I know the Red Sox had to trade Kevin Youkilis. Between his age, his contract, his unhappiness, his declining performance, and the red-hot bat of Will Middlebrooks, it had to be done. But I can’t shake the sense of foreboding I have over this.

Certainly, it’s tough to complain about Middlebrooks right now. He’s hitting .326, has bashed nine homers, and has a gaudy slugging percentage of .583. If he has a weak spot, though, it’s that he’s not a selective hitter. His on base percentage is .365, which seems low for a guy hitting .326, and he’s walked just eight times so far this season in 41 games. Compare that to Youkilis, who, despite struggling mightily at the plate, has walked 14 times in 42 games. Whereas Youk has seen 4.55 pitcher per plate appearance this year, Middlebrooks’ figure is just 3.90.

Of course, Youk has always been known as the Greek God of Walks. Before he even reached the majors, Billy Beane christened him thus in Michael Lewis’ seminal book, Moneyball. Even in the minors, Youkilis’ on base percentage numbers were gaudy, and for most of his time in the majors, his OBP has hovered between .390 and .410, which is very, very good. In his four years of minor league ball, Middlebrooks’ OBP ranged from .298 to .349. In other words, the guy has a sweet swing, but lacks Youk’s patience and precision.

And here is why all of this gives me pause: back when Theo Epstein took over the club in 2003, the Red Sox’s fortune turned when they transformed into a team that grinded out bats, chewed through opposing pitchers with their patience (so that they could prey on the weaker relievers), and simply got on base. The departures of free swingers like Shea Hillenbrand and especially Nomar Garciaparra — guys who put up gaudy batting averages but low OBPs — felt symbolic of the change.

But it feels like the Sox are now creeping away from that. It started last year, when Epstein signed Carl Crawford, a relatively undisciplined hitter, to his 27-year, $3 billion contract (I might need to double check those numbers). And now we’ve got Middlebrooks. Like I said, there’s no denying his talent or that he’s been setting the world on fire in his first few months in the big leagues. Hopefully, he’ll learn to be more selective at the plate with time. Encouragingly, his current OBP is significantly higher than any that he had in the minors. But I’ve got a funny feeling about all this. After all, from now on, The Greek God of Walks is not walking through that door.