Kevin Youkilis was placed on the disabled list by the Boston Red Sox yesterday because of a balky back. Such an issue has to be unsettling for Red Sox fans as history has seen such great players as Don Mattingly and Todd Helton have careers sapped by such a thing. As we all know, Kevin Youkilis has to switch to third base after the Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez in the off season. The trade was good news/bad news because the Red Sox picked up an MVP-type player but in the process necessitated taking what was one of the best first basemen in the American League and putting him over at third.
Let's be up front here and state officially that there are few batters in baseball that are as scary in big at bats than Kevin Youkilis. The guy just has this presence at the plate to do big things w hen the game is on the line. He's a big part in the never-say-die Red Sox. And let's also be frank by stating that Youkilis is an elite producer who has played at a value of nearly $18.5 million this season (4.1 fWAR). But still, there has been a perceptible drop in his production this year over past seasons.
First, there is his slugging percentage. In the previous three years, Youkilis has slugged between .548 and .569. This year, he's at .481. His homer to fly ball ratio is his lowest since 2007. Though he is still a human walk machine, he's swinging at slightly more pitches out of the strike zone. For the first time in three years, his wOBA is under .400. And perhaps just as telling, as an elite hitter, Kevin Youkilis has always hit with a high BABIP that was well over league norms. This year his BABIP is just slightly above league average. Without getting to nitpicking, his strikeout rates is slightly higher than his career norm and his ground ball percentage is slightly higher too.
Youkilis is 32 and regression is inevitable as he gets a little older and further from his peak years. But does playing third base make any difference? Fielding metrics do show that he was an elite fielding first baseman. He is not an elite fielding third baseman. His current metrics are in the negative numbers for the season. But the more this writer types, the arguments for third being more "unhealthy" for Youkilis seem kind of lame.
Playing third can't be any more stressful than playing first. Both positions are subject to hard shots. Both positions require setting up for a grounder. Both positions are required to set up for cutoff plays. Both positions have to field bunts. The only real difference is that third base requires more throws and those throws have to be made from multiple body positions. So maybe that's part of the answer, or at least a more favorable argument.
A balky back can happen from playing any position. And we don't really know how long it's been bothering Youkilis. From his .209 batting average in August, you would have to conclude that it's been going on for a while. Time will tell if this is going to plague him for a while and drags him down like it did other players.
And it could just be a down year for Youkilis. Whether it's due to his switch to third base could be no more than a coincidental argument. What can be said is that the 2011 Kevin Youkilis isn't quite as good as previous year versions. But still...you just know he's going to draw a walk in the ninth inning of a big game, don't you?