April 30, 2012 at 7:30 AM
Mitchell worked around Middlebrooks in their next encounter, issuing a four-pitch walk with nothing close. His last plate appearance of the night also resulted in a walk, but was much more of a challenge. Facing right-handed reliever Jason Bulger, Middlebrooks took the first pitch for a strike, before laying off two straight curveballs for balls. Again up 2-1, Bulger painted a 92 mph fastball on him at the knees, which Middlebrooks took for a strike. The next pitch ended up being the key one of the plate appearance. Bulger’s 2-2 delivery was another painted fastball on the outside of the plate, but a bit further out. The definition of a pitcher’s pitch and one Middlebrooks could do nothing with had he swung. Showing an understanding of his strike zone, he took the pitch for a ball, forcing the righty into a 3-2 count. Bulger could not execute a curveball, tossing it high and outside of the strike zone, with Middlebrooks taking his second base on balls.
Swing: Middlebrooks’ swing has evolved since his early career within the organization. Initially on the level side, he used to pull the head of the bat through the hitting zone with little post contact extension and follow-through. He has always been capable of creating strong backspin when squaring pitches up, but was more of a line drive hitter and would go into ruts of rolling over the ball. He has learned how to get more lift out of his swing the last couple of seasons. Middlebrooks exploded through the fastball he drove for a triple in this game, with upward path through the hitting zone and strong post-contact extension. Able to keep his shoulder square to the pitcher, his hands stayed inside of the ball during his swing and the head of the bat went out to the ball, instead of yanking over it like he frequently did in the lower minors. He also generated very easy batspeed due to the fluidity of his swing mechanics.
Take: Similar to last season in Double-A, Middlebrooks is presently showing a lot of confidence in his hitting ability. His body language points towards a much higher comfort level than during his stint in Triple-A at the tail-end of the 2011 season, where the speed of the game looked ahead of him. Middlebrooks continues to show consistency with staying back on the ball and trusting his hands when attacking pitches. The fluidity of his swing enables his plus batspeed to do the rest. What jumped out during this scouting opportunity was the progress with his understanding of how to control at-bats. Middlebrooks worked to get his pitch and was content with letting others pass that he either couldn’t handle or was not looking for. He also showed the discipline to know that despite being up in the count, the next pitch delivered is not necessarily the appropriate one to swing out. Even at times last season, getting in the situation of being up in the count usually meant he was swinging regardless of what was coming. The dedication to apply his growing knowledge of himself as a hitter and continuing to trust the process regardless of the results are the keys to putting the finishing touches on his career as a minor league player.
While Middlebrooks has shown an uptick in his strike zone management skills to start the season and demonstrated it in this game, there is still work to do going forward. He was a bit too amped up in his second at-bat of this game when ahead in the count 2-1. Middlebrooks did not pick up the changeup early and can expect to see more secondary offerings at any point in the count his second time around the International League. He is an excellent fastball hitter, but needs to show he can handle breaking balls consistently. I saw it as a good sign during his later plate appearances that he was distinguishing curveballs quickly. His weight stayed balanced when taking them and he did not transfer out onto his front foot early like he has in the past. They were not overly deep major league caliber curves, however, instead more of the sweeping variety. As he continues to go around the league and face higher quality arms, Middlebrooks is going to be further tested. How he adjusts in this regards, for me, is a better indication of how close to being ready for the transition to the major leagues he is. Follow-up scouting opportunities will be focused on the next step in the progression, after seeing the initial steps taken towards being a major league-ready hitter.
Chris Mellen is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisMellen