DENVER — If he didn’t read the tweets and the blogs and the stories, he was certainly made aware of them. People started to bail out on Will Middlebrooks.
Maybe he wasn’t that good after all. Maybe his rookie season was an aberration. Maybe he never would live up to the power-hitting expectations people had for him.
This was the classic sophomore jinx.
After a horrible start to the 2013 season, in which he couldn’t get over the Mendoza Line, the second-year Red Sox third baseman went back to the minors with no guarantee he’d be back soon. He was an exercise in frustration — and then determination that he wasn’t going to leave his career, his livelihood, his chance for riches on a minor league field in Pawtucket, R.I.
So he fought for it. Sometimes he needed to adjust his attitude and sometimes others had to adjust it for him. But in the end — after two recalls and demotions — he was a major leaguer again, the Red Sox starting third baseman, and the player who used to have opposing scouts oohing and aahing and telling you things like, “The ball sounds so different off his bat.”
It’s a noise that few major leagues produce. Middlebrooks does.
His is the story of a young player having instant success, then struggling, then making the adjustments to get the feeling back.
And now, after hitting .294 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 37 games since being recalled Aug. 10, he finally can admit the demotion did him a world of good.
“Yeah, absolutely it did me good,” Middlebrooks said before Tuesday night’s game against the Rockies. “At first it was frustrating. Nobody wants to get demoted, but after a week, I could see the big picture and see that I needed to work on getting my body right and getting fundamentally right.
“Once I got to the point where I could see the big picture, I was able to get myself back right and work toward getting back.”
We’ll say what Middlebrooks never wanted to say: He was hurt. Plain and simple. He was coming off a major wrist injury that cut short his 2012 season and then developed a back injury that threw his swing completely out of kilter.
As someone who never had to deal with any major physical problem, Middlebrooks became helpless at the plate and in the field, making adjustments just to ease the discomfort and getting into the worst habits.
“The biggest thing for me was that I was able to get healthy,” he said. “I was playing with stuff all year and I was able to get rid of that. I had nothing holding me down. Baseball is twisting and bending — if your back hurts, you can’t do that. It restricted me for a while.”
Did he come back too soon?
“I think so,” he said. “That’s just me being competitive and wanting to get out here. I thought I was ready. There were things I was doing fundamentally that weren’t good. I created bad habits trying to make adjustments because I was injured.
“I had to get back to the basic and real things. And that time in Pawtucket working with Gary [DiSarcina] got me back to what I needed to be doing.”
Frustration set in when Middlebrooks wouldn’t get the call back up, even when roster spots opened in Boston. because of trades or injuries
“Yeah, it was frustrating, but at the same time, there was never a set timetable,” he said. “My play would dictate when it was time. I was trying to keep my head down and work.
“I have enough trust in Ben [Cherington] and John [Farrell]. If they didn’t feel I was ready, then I wasn’t ready.”
Between Pawtucket and Boston, Middlebrooks has hit 25 home runs this year. The power bat is alive and well. He’s looking more like the player he was in 2012, when he was the brightest light in an otherwise miserable Red Sox season.
“I’m a gap-to-gap guy, not a dead-pull guy,” Middlebrooks said. “When I’m using all fields that’s where I’m at my best.”
Also this year, the scouting reports on him were mounting.
“Once you have success a certain way, you’re going to get attacked,” said Middlebrooks. “They’re going to exploit everything, every weakness and flaw at this level.
“Sometimes I get overaggressive at the plate and I beat myself. I don’t walk a lot, and that’s going to be something I grow into over time.”
He’s learning how to prepare better for a game. He’s also working with Jonny Gomes on how to attack pitchers.
“I sit down with Jonny a lot and watch pitchers and I’ve learned to put together a creative plan with each guy and each situation,” Middlebrooks said. “I would just go in and watch a couple of a pitcher’s last two starts, but Jonny opened my eyes about watching a pitcher and how he pitches when he has runners in scoring position because that’s when you’ll see his best stuff.”
While he doesn’t like to set goals because “sometimes you set them too high and you can’t achieve them, and you don’t want to get down on yourself,” he envisions a .280-plus hitter with 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
Where he’ll play is another story. He already has made one start at first base. Being a good athlete, he has position flexibility. He could wind up at first or in the outfield. Or he could stay at third if the Red Sox decide Xander Bogaerts will be their shortstop in the future.
“I just want to play,” said Middlebrooks. “I trust in this staff. They know what’s best for me and my career.”
The Red Sox probably could have parted with him in various trades, but they resisted.
Middlebrooks has gone through his growing pains. He understands what happened. He currently is in a 5-for-39 funk. But he seems better equipped to handle it now.
He’s learning how major leaguers have to play with injuries. In fact, it was Dwight Evans who recently commented on how Carl Yastrzemski taught him as a young player how to not only play hurt but to play hurt at a high level. He also taught Evans how to avoid the prolonged slumps.
“I had success through 75 games last season and I had some small struggles,” said Middlebrooks. “But this year I had a three-month struggle and I couldn’t get out of it. There was constantly something to have to overcome. It just snowballed on me.”
It was just a sophomore jinx. Just a blip on what might be a pretty significant career.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.