Thursday, March 4, 2010

4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B and sometimes 3B

Baseball Prospectus' 2010 Projection:
31 594 82 35 2 22 86 67 107 4 3 .283 .379 .488 2.9

Baseball Prospectus' Take:

"He's an ugly, sweaty, man-beast with a pale, bald pate and a fondness for overgrown facial hair, he's got one of the game's most irritating batting stances, and he's a grade-A red-ass who takes particular exception to being pitched inside while standing on top of homeplate (most recently trying to Oddjob Rick Porcello with his batting helmet following an HBP). He's also one of the game's most valuable players."

X-Mark's Take:

Those nerds at BP sure are funny, good writers huh? I couldn't paraphrase that evaluation and leave out any of those awesome words. But obviously the takeaway is the simple, closing sentence, that our ugly friend is "one of the game's most valuable players."

With his ability to play two positions very well, take pitches and draw walks, fantastic defense at first and above average defense at third, and his surprisingly solid power spike over the past couple years, Yoooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuk has been in the conversation for top 5 position players in the AL the past 2 seasons (along with Mauer, Jeter, Cabrera, A-Rod, Longoria, Pedroia, and Shin-Soo Choo). His name is fun to scream at the pahk. His style is fun for Sox fans to root for. His ugly mug resembles that of Murph or Sully down at the docks in Gloucester. He battles every day with Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler for title of best active Jewish ballplayer (check out this video for Denis Leary's take on Youk's heritage). For better or worse he is our best player and face of the franchise.

So why is BP's projection system, PECOTA, so down on him?

First a clarification: A 2.9 WARP is comfortably above average and may even discount his defense a bit, meaning he's a bit better than this. So saying they are down may seem weird, but his WARP from '08 was 5.8 and from '09 was 5.5 so a 1.6-1.9 win tumble is really significant.

Well the answer most likely lies in his batted ball data. This is a compilation of percentages found at that show how often Youk walks, strikes out, homers, hits balls in the air, hits line drives, hits grounders, hits pop outs, and, most importantly for this discussion, hits fly balls out of the ball park.

If you click on the link and scroll down a bit, you will notice that all of these rates remain fairly constant within a percentage or two. But when you look at HR/FB (percentage of fly balls that are home runs), you see a huge spike in '08 to 14.9% that spiked again in '09 to 16.5%.

If this were 2002 you could easily explain this away with steroids. But it's not, so unfortunately (fortunately?) we have to dig a little deeper. Luckily, if you have spent (wasted?) as much time as I have over the years compiling the best baseball websites on The Net, you wouldn't have to dig that deep. The site is called Hit Tracker and it measures everything you would ever want to know about home runs including speed off the bat, altitudinal impact, and "Just Enough" (defined by Hit Tracker as " the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, OR that it landed less than one fence height past the fence. These are the ones that barely made it over the fence") home runs. You may be able to see where I'm going with this: In '09 Youkilis finished second in the AL with 13 "Just Enoughs"; in '08 he finished fourth with 11; in '07 he finished fourteenth with 9 (out of only 16 total HR).

Now, a deep breath. If we take these numbers at face value we are lead to believe that in a year or two Youk is destined for Warning Track Power (or as I like to call it "Kevin Millar Power"). And this may be what BP's system is seeing in his unexpected power spike.

But if you look at the rest of the "Just Enough" leader board you will find it littered with Red Sox. Does this mean the entire team only has Kevin Millar Power? Hell no. What it means is that the Red Sox play in a very very unique park and as great a site and technology as Hit Tracker is, it clearly has trouble evaluating the effect of the Monster.

Look at the first definition for a just enough home run: "the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet." Well the Green Monster is 37' high meaning a ball has to be 47' in the air at the point of clearing the wall. Even at that short distance, this is really hard to do.

I think that it is really hard to change who you are as a baseball player, especially at 29 years old, as Youkilis seems to have done. Usually you can explain these supposed changes away as luck and random fluctuations, which you can do with these "Just Enough" homers. But I think you can slightly tweak the path of a swing, which I bet is what happened with Youk here allowing him to better take advantage of his home surroundings. So until I see a drop in power, I am going to expect Youk to continue to knock on the door of 30 homers for the next couple of years further cementing his place in the upper echelon of ballplayers.

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