Will Middlebrooks was a consensus top-100 prospect going into the 2012 season and he did not disappoint, blasting 15 home runs with an .835 OPS in 286 plate appearances in the big leagues. He wasn’t nearly as good last season, slashing .227/.271/.425. As it turns out, Middlebrooks’ deteriorating vision might have been at least partially to blame for the lack of offensive output.
As Brian MacPherson writes for the Providence Journal, the Red Sox found this spring that Middlebrooks was seeing 20-25 in his right eye and 20-30 in his left. It’s nothing serious, but having his vision corrected with contact lenses allowed him to once again see the spin on the ball.
“For everyday life, you’d never correct it,” he said. “But for what I do, you need to be able to see the little things. Once I put them in, I could really see the spin on the ball. I was always just reading trajectory of the ball. I was never seeing the spin.”
Middlebrooks was careful not to use his vision as a crutch, explaining why he wasn’t so good last season. The 25-year-old third baseman said, “I wasn’t consistent with my approach and my way of thinking at the plate. That has nothing to do with my vision. That’s just decision-making. But it’s easier when you can see things.”
With Stephen Drew gone, prospect Xander Bogaerts takes over everyday at shortstop, leaving Middlebrooks with plenty of playing time at third base. The Red Sox hope that the opportunity along with the enhanced vision translates to a big season for Middlebrooks.
To the surprise of, well, very few, the Mariners didn’t make the cut for the postseason this year. While they threw their hats in the ring for a wild card berth, their pitching staff just couldn’t stay healthy, from the handful of pitchers who contracted season-ending injuries in spring training to Felix Hernandez‘s shoulder bursitis to structural damage in Hisashi Iwakuma‘s right shoulder. Left-hander James Paxton missed 79 days with a lingering head cold, strained left forearm and pectoral strain. Heading into the 2018 season, the lefty told MLB.com’s Greg Johns that he plans to “nerd out big-time” in order to prepare for a healthy, consistent run with the club.
So far, Johns reports, that entails a new diet and workout program, hot yoga sessions and blood testing. “I just think there’s more I can do,” Paxton said. “I haven’t done the blood testing before. Finding out if there’s something I don’t know about myself. It’s just about learning and trying to find what works for me.”
When healthy, the 28-year-old southpaw was lights-out for the Mariners. He helped stabilize the front end of the rotation with a 12-5 record in 24 starts and supplemented his efforts with a 2.98 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9 through 136 innings. Despite taking multiple trips to the disabled list, he built up 4.6 fWAR — the most wins above replacement he’s compiled in any season of his career to date. Had he not been felled by a pectoral injury in mid-August — one that came with a five-week trip to the disabled list — the club might have been been able to make a bigger push for the playoffs.
Of course, even if Paxton manages to stay healthy next season, the Mariners still have the rest of the rotation to worry about. They cycled through 17 starters in 2017 and tied the 2014 Rangers with 40 total pitchers over the course of the season. Per GM Jerry Dipoto, their top four starters (Paxton, Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Tommy John candidate Drew Smyly) only contributed 17% of total innings pitched, just a tad below the 40% average. Finding adequate big league arms and compensating for injured aces (both current and former) will be tough. Still, getting a healthy, dominant Paxton back on the mound for 30+ starts would be a huge get for the team — whether or not the postseason is in their future next year.