The Beyond the Box Score mailbag

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Three writers from the Beyond the Box Score staff answer reader questions about Will Middlebrooks' chances at a breakout in 2014, outfield shifts, and potential Rookie of the Year candidates, among other topics.

Spring training has finally arrived, and after we asked for questions from our readers last week, three Beyond the Box Score writers provided their answers to a select group of these questions. We hope you enjoy the mailbag, and be sure to send us in your questions next time around!

Now let's get started!

Is Will Middlebrooks as primed for a breakout year as I think he is? And does his low OBP negate any upside his power brings? -Jim Xavier

Alex: Middlebrooks is an interesting case, and as a Red Sox fan, I'm certainly hoping for a breakout. But I'm still a bit skeptical, mostly because of his low OBP, which certainly negates his power upside, especially if he has trouble getting on base to the extent he did in the first half of 2013. After returning from Triple-A, Middlebrooks did hit .276/.329/.476 with eight home runs from August 10th onward. If he can maintain that level of production for a full season, I'd be doing cartwheels. But as Russell Carleton wrote at Baseball Prospectus recently (subscription required), a player finishing one season strong generally has little correlation with their performance the next. In other words, his .227/.271/.425 line for the full season in 2013 is a bit more telling, and even if he did make some adjustments upon his return to the bigs in August, I will remain skeptical of Middlebrooks until he performs better over a longer period of time.

Anthony: I believe Middlebrooks' breakout potential is contingent upon two factors. The first and obvious one is playing time. All signs point to Middlebrooks being the Red Sox starter at third base as of now. However, Stephen Drew is still on the market, and there have been on and off whispers of a Red Sox reunion throughout the offseason. With that being said, I would speculate Middlebrooks has little room for error, and getting off to a good start is pivotal for him. As for the second factor, it really depends on how much of a breakout you're expecting. Given his skill set and a season's worth of plate appearances, I think he can give Mark Trumbo-esque production. While not amazing, it's certainly palatable.

Stuart: The opportunity is there, with all signs pointing to Xander Bogaerts moving to shortstop full time. He does come with a history of lower back and wrist issues, which are both troublesome individually, so that's a small red flag for me. If he legitimately has worked on developing a little more plate discipline, he is setting himself up for a nice bounce-back year. Fellow BtBS'er Chris Moran had a great article on Middlebrooks a few weeks ago.

Using Trumbo as a comp, Middlebrooks' low OBP approach shouldn't be too much of an issue for the Red Sox and could even improve with a less aggressive approach at the plate.

I usually don’t see minor league BABIP numbers baked into a player’s baseline BABIP. Is there a good reason for this? Are minor league BABIPs higher in the minors because of worse defense and worse pitching? Otherwise, why wouldn’t a player’s total BABIP be used on sites like FanGraphs? -Joel Trunfio

Alex: It's a good question, and from my perspective, I don't put much merit in minor league BABIP numbers simply because MLB is a whole different level of competition. Yes, they can be useful sometimes when seeing if a player has posted above- or below-average BABIP numbers throughout his professional career. Yet they just don't tell us much about how a player can be expected to perform at the major league level, which is far tougher to succeed in than anywhere in the minors.

Anthony: I think the reason we don't see it as much is because BABIP is a very fluid stat, and it can be difficult to discern concrete conclusions from it. For instance, if a guy had a .240 BABIP, was he unlucky, hurt, or does he have a long swing? Vice versa, if a guy has a .340 BABIP, was he lucky, more inclined to hit for a higher BABIP thanks to a shorter swing, or did defenses play him poorly? We can look at other stats such as ISO, speed ratings, wOBA, and so on to help us clarify what's exactly going on. But the point being, BABIP is more of a complementary stat to aforementioned stats rather than a conclusive one.

Stuart: There are myriad reasons that BABIP in the minors doesn't carry into MLB BABIP, but all lend credence to the fact that BABIP simply doesn't correlate strongly year to year, even at the MLB level. Add to it other matters like talent and park factors varying wildly down on the farm, and you come to the conclusion that BABIP doesn't travel well.

As a Pirates fan, I was saturated with a wealth of infield shifts last year. This was obviously because our staff generally preferred pitching to contact (and probably preferred it more once the shifts were actively helping in creating outs). Now, the Bucs are looking to shift our outfielders. If we call up Gregory Polanco, we’d have (essentially) three center fielders covering the grass, which could make outfield shifts doable. What is more valuable: preventing an abundance of short-distance hits via infields shifts or preventing extra-base hits via outfield shifts? -Boxelder

Alex: Teams have been shifting their outfielders for years, though it will be interesting to see what types of shifts teams like the Pirates begin to employ in the future. All the data that teams are now gathering from Fieldf/x and Hitf/x could have a huge impact on how MLB clubs shift their defenses. Unfortunately, all that information is proprietary, so the sabermetric community won't be nearly as well informed as MLB clubs are. Preventing extra-base hits in the outfield would be preferred, but I wonder how much teams can really do that given the far greater ground outfielders have to cover. At this point in time, it just seems it's easier for teams to prevent hits via infield shifts.

Anthony: Generally speaking, I think outfield shifts are the more valuable/important of the two. My reasoning behind this is simple logic; having the opposing team hit for extra base hits increases their run expectancy and, in turn, their win expectancy. However, with that being said, I think a balance between the two is probably the best formula for optimal run prevention.

Stuart: Outfield shifts have been a part of the game for a very long time—coaches are always shifting outfielders to counter hitter tendencies. However, it does appear Pittsburgh will be taking this to a whole different level. To more directly answer the question, I think it depends on the pitcher-hitter matchup—the more fly ball/line drive heavy a pairing is, the more important that outfield shift will be. I could see, though, where the Pirates will reap benefits sooner with these shifts compared to infield shifts simply because of the defensive talent roaming their outfield.

Would it be easier to turn the best position player in baseball into the best pitcher or the best pitcher into the best position player? How about into an average version of the other? How long would you need assuming the players were young, healthy, and motivated? -Neil Weinberg

Alex: This is a fun question, and we've already seen players succeed both ways. Rick Ankiel and Adam Loewen have made it the majors as pitchers and then returned as hitters, and recently, Oakland's Sean Doolittle has made the conversion to relief pitcher. I would say converting from hitter to pitcher is the easier task, just because loads of position players have strong arms and can at least come out of the bullpen throwing in the mid-90s, something Doolittle has been able to do with the A's. Hitting at the major league level is a whole different ballgame, and it took both Ankiel and Loewen three years of development in the minors before they reached the majors as hitters.

Anthony: My money would be on hitter to pitcher. I don't have much confidence in pitchers with a bat in their hand. It's also even become sort of a thing in blowout games to have a position player take the mound.

I'm doubtful, though, the hitter would ever be able to become the best pitcher, just two completely different skills needed to succeed at either. Past transitions have taken about a year or two, so that seems fair.

Stuart: Tough question, but I think with time constraints and pitcher type considered, position player to reliever is the easiest, with it taking roughly three years to make it stick.

Historically, it is easier to go from position player to pitcher and attain, then maintain, success, with the caveat that most position player to pitcher stories develop as relievers, which is a simpler transition and requires the least amount of pitching talent. Can you throw hard? Do you have any idea where it's going? Can you quickly learn a second pitch? Voila, you're a reliever! Now, if you're asking position player to starter, I think it gets a little tougher.

OPS has its flaws as a stat, but has entered the mainstream in the way a lot of other advanced stats haven’t. How do you feel about OPS? Is its wider acceptance a good thing or bad for us sabermetrics folk? -Rob Winter

Alex: The biggest drawback of OPS is it's not very descriptive. Sure, you can conclude that a hitter with an .850 OPS is pretty good, but it doesn't tell us how he got there or what type of player he is. For example, Daniel Nava posted an .831 OPS in 2013, and Adam Jones finished with an .811 mark. But Nava got there by being an on-base machine, while Jones reached his total mostly through power. Including each hitter's on-base and slugging percentages is far more telling. It has been nice to see OPS gain a wider acceptance, and I think it's ultimately a good thing. Considering its drawbacks, though, there are some other statistics that are far more useful.

Anthony: I like OPS because I feel it can at least paint a general picture of the player we're looking at. Obviously stats like wOBA and wRC provide a better picture, but for the general fan, I think it's a step in the right direction.

Stuart: OPS is a nice start. It takes two things already well known, understood, and absorbed and takes it that extra mile, like many other advanced metrics. However, there are better stats out there that you hope are pursued, since OPS has its flaws and limitations. Any opportunity to show a better way to understand and hopefully enjoy the game, even if more complex and fine-tuned methods are out there that require a little more curiosity and patience to absorb, is a good thing.

Put on your scout’s hat for a moment. What do you find most appealing on the ball field—a knee-buckling curve, a gargantuan home run, slick defense, or blinding speed on the bases? Or perhaps there’s something else? -Wally Williams

Alex: As a baseball fan, I enjoy pretty much everything you just mentioned. For me, though, it has to be a good 'ole knee-buckling curve. I still remember the curveball Clayton Kershaw threw back in spring training in 2008 that basically broke Vin Scully. When Vin Scully calls a pitch you just threw "Public Enemy No. 1," I'd say that's pretty awesome.

Anthony: I have a heartthrob for a slick two-seam fastball. Possibly, my most favorite variety of said pitch is courtesy of Nate Jones. Not only does he get a ton of bite on the pitch, but he also averages throwing it at 97.7 mph! Have a look for yourself:

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Stuart: It's a more overarching aspect of baseball, but quickness is the thing for me. A guy who has a quick arm as a pitcher, a quick first step on the base paths or in the field, or quick hands that get the bat through the hitting zone, are things that appeal to me and that you notice immediately.

Every year at least one unexpected team wins their division and qualifies for the playoffs after not making them the year before. What team do you see surpassing expectations in this manner in 2014? -Andrew Hebson

Alex: Always a tough task to pick the surprise team, but I'll go with the Royals. The Nationals are another team that could make the playoffs after missing out last year, though I don't think many would consider them a surprise.

Anthony: The first team that came to mind was the Kansas City Royals. Though after a strong offseason, I could see this being a popular pick. So to go a little more unconventional, I think the Philadelphia Phillies could turn some heads. If you can squint past the age and injury concerns, it's not too farfetched to see this team capable of being a contender. Overtaking the Braves or Nationals won't be an easy task, but with enough health, and some luck, the Phillies might squeeze one more playoff run out of their aging core.

Stuart: It will take some outside help in the form of other teams stumbling along the way, but if injury concerns fade, younger players play up to their talent level, and their defense plays at least average, the Phillies could battle a Wild Card spot.

Give us your Rookie of the Year predictions for both leagues. -Sam Reynolds

Alex: I'll go with Xander Bogaerts in the American League (I am a Red Sox fan after all!), and Oscar Taveras in the NL.

Anthony: This one is tough to forecast. In the AL there is a lot of ready-now talent: Xander Bogaerts, Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Abreu, and Taijuan Walker to name a few. While the NL also has a lot of young talent: George Springer, Javier Baez, Thomas La Stella, Gregory Polanco, and then some. Though we might not see most of them until midseason or later, which could play a key role into the voting process. This is one of the richest talent pools, in terms of depth, we've seen in a while. Like I said, this one is tough, but I'll take Jose Abreu and Thomas La Stella.

Stuart: AL - Taijuan Walker
NL - Travis d'Arnaud

Special thanks to Anthony Joshi-Pawlowic (@AJP13237) and Stuart Wallace (@TClippardsSpecs) for lending their opinions and analysis, and thank you to our readers for sending their questions in.

. . .

Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score and also contributes to SB Nation's MLB newsdesk. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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