Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Future of Kevin Youkilis

This post is inspired by a post I read yesterday from the blog Boston Sports Then and Now where the writer, Eddie Nieves, questioned, “Have we seen the best of Kevin Youkilis?”
In 2006, a 27-year-old Kevin Youkilis established himself as a starter for the Boston Red Sox and over the next two years, developed power, hit for average, and played Gold Glove defense at first. Youkilis came third in MVP voting in 2008 when he enjoyed a career year batting .312 with 29 home runs, 119 runs batted in, and 91 runs scored. This was the third straight year his abilities at the plate improved. Unfortunately, that may have been his peak.  Since playing 145 games in both 2007 and 2008, his performance and his ability to stay healthy has been in decline. What if Youkilis is incapable of succeeding at third base?

The post continues on to show some not all that compelling facts about Youk’s career since that 2008 season, but the most interesting of which is a stat that I am sure will blow the minds of many many fans out there: since 2009, Youk has played 348 games; in that same time, J.D. “Nancy” Drew has played in 353. I will let that sink in for a second. The man most of Red Sox nation finds to be tough as nails has played fewer games over the last three seasons than the man most of Red Sox nation finds to be tough as snails. The guy who is supposed to be a centerpiece of this team, who bats in the middle of the order, who bleeds baseball has played in fewer games than a guy who is now a platoon player, who supposedly milks injuries and who is 3 years older. But my post isn’t an attempt to once again show how underrated J.D. Drew has been or to say that Youk has been overrated, it's actually quite the opposite (save for his defense at third, although I think people are realizing now that it is poor). I want to take a look at what the Red Sox can expect from Youk in the future based off  his recent performances and, more interestingly, his top comparable players.

First to address what Nieves claimed in his post, that Youk peaked in 2008. In terms of batting average and slugging, Youk did have his top season in 2008. He also peaked, to this point, in MVP voting that year finishing third. However, if you look at ’09 and ’10, he didn’t decline, as a peak would suggest, but instead held steady or even improved in some areas, namely getting on base.* In fact, '08 was his worst year in terms of walk rate and a total outlier to the rest of his career. As with most players, the peak is usually not one season, but 3, 5, 7 or more. The question with Youkilis is did he only have a 3 year peak, or will he be able to sustain the peak after a small dip this season?

* One thing that is funny about Youk is that in Moneyball Billy Beane dubbed him the “Greek God of Walks” and yet his highest walk total in his career was 91 in 2006 and since has never had more than 77 in a season. He has never finished higher than 19th in baseball in walks, an indication of his lack of health and his not quite elite ability to draw walks. Also, Drew typically finishes with more walks each season.

To assess Youk’s future we should start with his present, that “dip” he’s had this year. Last year, Youk went missed a significant amount of time with a wrist injury. Wrist injuries usually take over a year to heal and what they hinder mostly is power. During his peak, Youk had an Isolated Slugging Percentage (SLG-AVG, a way to show how much power a player has by taking out his singles) around .250, but this year it has dropped to .215. If this drop is caused by the wrist, we should see his power return next season. His on base ability has stayed basically the same as he has walked in 13.3% of his plate appearances, equal to the last two seasons. The other area where he has “dipped” is batting average, currently sitting at .266 down from a .308 average the previous three seasons. This can be attributed somewhat to increase in grounball rate, which may indicate a change in ability, but most of the drop can be attributed to luck. In his career, Youk has gotten a hit on about 33% of all at bats that don’t end in a walk, strikeout or home run, but this year that number is down to 30%. This usually indicates a change in fortune rather than skill. In other words, Youk is still hitting the ball well, but a lot of those hits are finding their ways into gloves. Therefore, his “dip” this year is mostly a result of a wrist injury sapping his power and some bad luck. This means it is conceivable that he could be in line for a bounce back next year if the wrist is fully healed.

A popular refrain on Youk’s mini-decline this season has been the wear and tear placed on his body by playing third base. This could certainly be the reason for his current back injury, but I don’t think it has anything to do with his hitting. As I demonstrated, his struggles this year are likely a result of the wrist injury last year and some bad luck. The real concern with him playing third base is that he doesn’t do it that well. Since there is a possibility that playing the position has been bad for his health and that he can’t really play the position, I would like to see him moved to DH as soon as possible. Unfortunately, if this happens next year and he bounces back as I suspect, it will almost all be attributed to moving off third, but you all will know better.

To look beyond next year it is instructive to look at some of Youk’s top comparable players (similar batters through age 31) and how they did after age 32. The top two most similar players to Youk through age 31 are very familiar to Red Sox nation: Trot Nixon and Dante Bichette. Sadly, these two names do not bode well for Youk’s future, nor do other luminaries on the list like Brad Hawpe, Marty Cordova and Jeff Conine. The best players on the list who had the best post-31 career were, in order of similarity, Dolph Camilli, Bob Nieman, Bob Johnson and Moises Alou. Nixon played his last season in Boston at age 32 and failed to post a slugging percentage over .400. He moved onto Cleveland the next year where he was even worse, then played 11 games for the Mets in his age 34 season and that was it. Bichette played three more seasons in Colorado after turning 32, essentially hitting slightly above average after accounting for the ridiculous Coors Field advantage. He moved onto Cincinnati and then Boston for his 36-37 seasons and still hit slightly above average, but was done at 37. On the bright side, Camili, Nieman, Johnson and Alou all had at least one, and sometimes more, season equal or better to Youk’s best season, relative to the league.

Did this research help us to learn anything more about Youk’s future? Besides what he is most likely to do next year (bounce back) probably not. His top comparable players provided an array of possibilities wider than Hurricane Irene’s possible path of destruction (it’s funny because it’s topical). If he follows players like Nixon, Hawpe or Cordova, he could be out of baseball once his current contract is up. If he follows guys like Bichette and Conine, then he will have some nice above average seasons ahead of him, but not what you would expect from a franchise cornerstone, cleanup hitter and likely DH. But, if he follows the path of Alou, Nieman, Camili and Johnson he should have a few more All Star seasons in him and a biiiiiiig outside chance at the Hall of Fame. Basically, it is too soon to tell if Youk’s peak was of the three year variety or will last much longer. Sorry for spewing 1,400 words all to tell you, “duhh, I dunno?” I promise tomorrow will be better.

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