Red Sox manager John Farrell met with Jose Iglesias and Will Middlebrooks separately in the visiting manager’s office at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on the afternoon of June 10 and laid out a plan he thought made sense.
The Red Sox would use Middlebrooks as their third baseman but play Iglesias at least three or four days a week. Most of those games would be at third base with an occasional start at shortstop.
The well-intentioned arrangement lasted eight days. Iglesias kept getting on base so often that the Red Sox had no choice but to play him every day.
“It’s hard to ignore two or three hits every night,” Farrell said. “I don’t know that we fully expect him to hit .430 by Sept. 15. But, you know what? He’s playing with a lot of confidence and doing a heck of a job for us.
“Right now he makes us a better team when he’s on the field, and he’s on the field.”
What has been a remarkable run continued in Detroit for Iglesias. The 23-year-old infielder started all four games and was 6 for 14 with two triples.
Iglesias is hitting .426 with 11 extra-base hits, 18 runs, and seven RBIs. He has reached base in 30 of his 32 games with a plate appearance, including the last 26.
Iglesias does not yet have enough plate appearances to qualify for leading the league, but his .479 on-base percentage leads all major leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances, as does his batting average.
Among American League rookies, Iglesias’s 46 hits are second to Chicago third baseman Conor Gillaspie, who has 48. Iglesias is tied for third in runs by rookies in the AL.
“People have asked me if I’m surprised. I can’t say that,” Iglesias said. “I’ve been waiting for this all my life. The surprise part is that I’m playing third base.”
Iglesias is a gifted shortstop, perhaps the best in the majors. But in an unexpected set of circumstances, he finds himself at third.
Iglesias was with the Sox for the first seven games of the season, playing shortstop while Stephen Drew was on the disabled list with a concussion. When Drew returned, Iglesias was sent to Triple A Pawtucket despite having gone 9 for 20.
He sulked in the minors to the point of being benched by manager Gary DiSarcina. The Red Sox then had him start working at third base in the event the major league team needed a utility infielder.
Middlebrooks injured his back and went on the disabled list May 24. Iglesias was called up to play third base. It appeared to be another short-term assignment filling in for an injured teammate. But Iglesias kept hitting to a point where he won the job. He also showed he could play third base at a high level.
“We were open-minded to it,” Farrell said. “As well as he played and as the performance dictated, we aren’t going to stunt this. That’s the beauty of sports. That’s the beauty of this. It is up for competition and that’s where we are today.”
There was nothing to indicate this was coming. Iglesias was hitting .202 at Pawtucket with a .262 on-base percentage. He was a career .257 hitter in the minors with little plate discipline or power.
“It’s just a question of when it clicks for some guys. Maybe this is his time,” Sox right fielder Shane Victorino said. “He’s always had the hand-eye coordination and athletic ability to play defense. Sometimes at the plate it takes a while.”
There is an element of luck to his statistics. Fifteen of Iglesias’s hits didn’t leave the infield; three were bunts, the rest were slow rollers or high choppers he beat out.
Iglesias has a .484 batting average on balls he puts in play, roughly 60 percent higher than average.
Even some of Iglesias’s extra-base hits have been the product of luck. Four of his eight doubles were pop-ups or flares that fell close to a foul line and rolled away.
On Friday in Detroit, Iglesias hit a soft liner over the head of the second baseman that rolled to the wall when right fielder Torii Hunter took a bad angle to the ball.
Hunter has nine Gold Gloves in his career. But with Iglesias up, he was playing a little shallow and the ball got past him for a triple. Farrell is no longer surprised by it.
“I just put another mark in the column of good fortune,” he said. “But, at the same time, you can’t say all of this is a fluke.”
Iglesias does not have above-average speed, but he has the ability to get out of the batter’s box quickly and put pressure on the defense.
“He’s balanced and he’s got some momentum that way,” Farrell said. “It’s not like he’s having to regroup with a step because he’s a spin hitter or he collapses on the back side. He’s got some momentum working in his favor to be in full stride and at full speed.
“He’s got some good fortune, but he’s got some fundamental things that he does that allow him to do that.
“We see him as an average runner, but there’s some things timing-wise that allow him to be above-average coming out of the box.”
Iglesias also puts the ball in play more often than not. According to Fangraphs.com, Iglesias has swung and missed only 4.5 percent of the time. Among Red Sox players, only Jacoby Ellsbury makes contact more often.
“I’ve learned a lot this season about hitting and I’m stronger now,” Iglesias said. “I feel more confident at the plate.”
Farrell said the coaching staff encouraged Iglesias to adopt a more aggressive swing in spring training, one that was more natural for him. In previous seasons, he was feeling for the ball.
“I tried a lot of things,” Iglesias said. “But now I have a good approach and I’ve stayed with it.”
So even when the luck turns against him — which is inevitable — Iglesias now has the tools that suggest he can be a productive everyday player.
The defense has been strong, too. Iglesias has learned to play with his glove closer to the ground at third base and adopt a wider stance.
“At shortstop, you’re playing at a higher position,” said third base coach Brian Butterfield. “You’re in a sprinter’s stance and you’re going to run after the ball.
“At third, you’re closer to the hitter and the balls get on you quicker. You have to protect from the waist down and crouch a little. Jose has great aptitude for it and he’s very athletic. I’ve been impressed.”
Now the Sox have a .426 hitter playing excellent defense. How long can this last?
“Don’t ask that question,” he said.