Friday, November 02, 2012

Kevin Youkilis - The Greek god of what?

If you go to Kevin Youkilis''s player page, one of the nicknames given there is the, "Greek God of Walks." The moniker, of course, goes back to the Moneyball story and Billy Beane who had his eye on Youkilis back in his minor league days. And then Youkilis burst on the scene for the Boston Red Sox in 2006 and was a major part of that team's glory year of 2007. But his star has faded in the past two seasons and this once darling of the analytic set is at a crossroads in his career. Where will he go from here? He is now the Greek god of what?

The first question to ask is the one that Bobby Valentine famously raised in 2012's Spring Training. Valentine's mistake, of course, was to pose the question to the media. But despite the hoopla surrounding the incident, was Valentine's question a valid one? He was witnessing Youkilis first hand last spring. Something he saw led to the question. Did Youkilis get complacent? Did his fire go out? And it is an important question because that fire was so much a part of the game of Kevin Youkilis.

Witnessing those epic battles against the Yankees, what stood out about Youkilis in his salad days was the way he played the game. He was as intense as any player in the game. He played like he was trying to prove the entire world wrong about something.

But then Valentine posed that question. Had nagging injuries taken the fire out of Youkilis? Had some nice paydays taken away the urgency of his game? Perhaps all of this speculation is hooey. The fact remains that Youkilis' game has disappeared in the last couple of years. And you have to wonder if it will return at this stage of his career.

Working in Youkilis' favor as he became a free agent this fall is the market for third baseman is Mother Hubbard cupboard-like. The White Sox have strongly intimated that they would like to have him back. Other teams will be in play if the White Sox do not satisfy what Youkilis wants. After all, this is most likely the player's last chance for a nice contract.

And teams will want him because of what he did from 2006 until 2010. We are talking about a guy who averaged a .384 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage in the .480 range or higher. We are talking about a guy who produced a wOBA over .400 for two straight seasons in 2009 and 2010 and a guy who has a career .894 OPS in high leverage situations.

But his last two years are quite daunting to those who hope there is still some magic in there. He only played 102 games in 2011 and his OPS fell to .833. That OPS still sounds rather productive and yes, he did drive in 80 runs. But that OPS was over a hundred points less than the OPS he put up in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

And then his 2012 season started dismally for the Boston Red Sox. After 42 games, his OPS was sitting at .692. He was batting .233. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox. After after a big game and a big first week with his new team, his season settled back in to the same sort of mediocrity. In 80 games with the White Sox, his triple slash line was .236/.346/.425. His combined OPS for both teams was .745 in 502 plate appearances and for the first time for a full season, his OPS+ fell under 100.

And even further indication of his loss of game was his doubles total. Youkilis, if nothing else, has been a doubles machine in his career. In the six years between 2006 and 2011, he averaged 35.66 doubles a season. In fact, his average per 162 games is 39. In 2012, he ht fifteen of them. This is not your normal Kevin Youkilis.

Digging deeper into his numbers, just about everything in his approach and results are the same as it always was. His plate discipline remains outstanding. His swing and miss rate was right in line with his career average. His home run per fly ball ratio was nearly identical. He produced similar line drive rates. His walks and strikeout percentages were normal for him.

There are only two statistical measures that have changed, and they go hand in hand. One is his BABIP.  For his career, Kevin Youkilis has averaged .322 on balls he put in play. In 2011, that figure fell to .296 and this past year, fell dramatically to .268. One of the reasons is that he is hitting far more ground balls than ever before in his career.

For his career, Youkilis has hit 36 percent of his batted balls on the ground. His career ground ball to fly ball ratio is 0.84. But in 2011, his ground ball percentage jumped to 41.8 percent and in 2012, that rate jumped again to 42.9 percent. His ground ball to fly ball ratio for the past two seasons have been 1.09 and 1.18 respectively.

And this seems to be a concerted effort on the part of the pitchers who face him. The number of two-seam fastballs thrown to him increased from 9.3 percent in 2010 to 12.3 percent in 2011 to 15.3 percent in 2012. With the improvements to the batted ball data teams now produce for themselves, fielders are positioning themselves better and Youkilis' ground balls turned into outs. He batted only .208 on grounders this past season.

It seems obvious that at this stage of the career of Kevin Youkilis, he is going to have to make adjustments. Perhaps it is time to simplify that preposterous batting stance of his so he can get to the ball quicker. Perhaps he will need to improve his off-season training program so that he can stay on the field more often.

Kevin Youkilis is going to be sought after this off-season. He will get a nice deal from either the White Sox or somebody else. Third baseman are scarce. His past performance is tantalizing and attractive. Youkilis will get a job with somebody. The question is whether he can get back to some semblance of the player he used to be to make whatever contract he is offered worth the investment. He was fun to watch and it would be a shame if he cannot get to some semblance of that kind of player.

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