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September 4, 2003

Prospecting

Kevin Youkilis

by David Cameron

Due in part to the popularity of Moneyball, Kevin Youkilis has become something of a cult hero. Dubbed "Euclis, The Greek God of Walks," the Red Sox third-base prospect was made larger than life in Michael Lewis' best-selling book. His propensity for drawing the base on balls led to on-base percentages usually reserved for Little League, and the fact that he was largely ignored by scouts simply added to his lore. In some circles, Youkilis is viewed as the poster child of statistical analysis, leading the fight against the old guard who were so unimpressed after his junior year at the University of Cincinnati that he went undrafted.

However, as Dayn Perry penned last week, the opposing trains of thought on Youkilis are best served when they are brought together. Rather than focusing on what Kevin Youkilis may tell us about the state of evaluation techniques in baseball, let's actually attempt to quantify what Youkilis is likely to become. After all, basing theories around the development patterns of a man who has yet to don a major league jersey is premature at best.

Youkilis was selected in the eighth round of the 2001 draft by the Red Sox as much for his inability to leverage a significant signing bonus (he received $12,000) as his skills on the field. Despite being an All-American and showing he could hit with wood bats in the Cape Cod League, scouts were still turned off by his unorthodox frame and questionable power. Most projected him as a first baseman in the major leagues, and did not believe he would hit enough to find his way into the lineup at a power position. Over the past three seasons, however, only Barry Bonds has reached base with a similar regularity.


Year  League  Age   AB   BA    OBP   SLG   BB/AB  BB/K  K/AB  XBH/H
2001  NYPL    22    183  .317  .512  .464  .38    2.5   .15   .33
2001  SAL     22    12   .167  .375  .167  .25    1.0   .25   .00
2002  SAL     23    53   .283  .433  .377  .25    1.63  .15   .33
2002  FSL     23    268  .295  .422  .388  .18    1.32  .14   .24
2002  EL      23    160  .344  .462  .500  .19    1.72  .11   .27
2003  EL      24    312  .337  .487  .465  .28    2.15  .13   .29
2003  IL      24    109  .165  .295  .248  .17     .86  .19   .28

Totals             1097  .300  .438  .448  .25    1.74  .14   .28

There are some ridiculous numbers in that chart. His walk-to-at-bat ratio in 2001 was better than Bonds' mark the same year, as Barry was passing Babe Ruth for the single-season walk record. Mortal human beings just don't draw walks in 38% of their at-bats, but that is what Kevin Youkilis did in his pro debut. He split 2002 between three clubs, producing more at each new level. When asked to start 2003 back in Double-A, he dominated the level, reaching base nearly half the time he stepped to the plate. However, upon his promotion to Triple-A, things fell apart, though in an admittedly small sample size. While he still drew his share of walks, he saw his strikeouts increase markedly, turning singles into outs, leading to his poor batting average.

Youkilis strengths--an uncanny batting eye and a solid ability to make contact--are made obvious in his performances. However, his main offensive weakness--lack of power--shows up as well, with substandard numbers in the extra-base-hit-to-total-hit ratio. Of the top 25 sluggers analyzed by the aforementioned Dayn Perry, only two (Brian Giles and Jeff Bagwell) had marks lower than Youkilis' 28% XBH/H rate while in the minor leagues. The composite number for the group was 34%, well ahead of Youkilis' pace.

A look at his PECOTA comparisons doesn't shed much light on the situation. Ken Oberkfell scored as the most similar player, and his career was productive if not spectacular. But Oberkfell's similarity score--25--was extremely low, to the point where we can say that Youkilis has no obvious comps to match up with. The player I most often compare to Youkilis is Dave Magadan. Magadan's performance before reaching the major leagues was remarkably similar to what Youkilis has done so far:


Year    League  Age  AB    BA    OBP   SLG   BB/AB  BB/K   K/AB  XBH/H
1983    SAL     21   220   .336  .461  .445  .23    1.76   .13   .23
1984    Carol   22   371   .350  .493  .431  .28    2.42   .12   .20
1985    Texas   23   466   .309  .437  .356  .23    1.86   .12   .15
1986    IL      24   473   .311  .415  .412  .18    1.87   .10   .27

Totals               1530  .324  .448  .405  .23    1.98   .11   .21

Beyond the numbers, the two players' skill sets are also remarkably similar. Magadan hit for a high average and drew an enormous amount of walks. He also made terrific contact, but had a very low percentage of his hits go for extra bases. That carried over to the major league level, as Magadan finished his career with a .288/.390/.377 line. Players who hang around for 16 years and post a higher OBP than SLG usually play great defense and/or a premium position, but Magadan split his entire career between third and first base, without excelling at either.

Youkilis is on a similar trail, I believe. While there is no arguing that he has a tremendous strength with his plate discipline, the flaws in his game are not likely to go away. He will be 25 years old on Opening Day 2004, young enough that a power spike may still be coming, but approaching the age where you get concerned. Youkilis' swing is conducive to driving the ball into the gaps, but he would need to add significant loft in order to improve on his home run totals. He's also not likely to get much smaller or quicker, and a move from third to first base appears to be more a matter of when than if. Regardless of which position he ends up playing, he will not be an asset in the field or on the base paths. His value will have to come solely from his bat.

What kind of value will it produce? PECOTA puts his weighted mean EqA at .279 during his age-27 peak season, which would put him in the class of what Tino Martinez and Eric Karros are doing this year. That is not exactly an impact player. At third base, he would fare better, as a .279 EqA would be good for 10th among major league third basemen this year. When factoring in defensive contributions though, he'd grade out as about a league-average player during his best season, assuming he fails to exceed that PECOTA projection.

As is often the case when hype nears the line of propaganda, people tend to float toward extreme positions. In this instance, those who value the skills that Youkilis possesses have been known to paint him as an elite prospect and a future All-Star. Those overwhelmed by what Youkilis cannot do have shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum, labeling him as a non-prospect without the necessary tools to succeed in Major League Baseball. Naturally, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Youkilis will almost certainly have a major league career of some value, though not likely one of extraordinary performances. While the risk is low, the reward is not particularly high either. The Red Sox made a good value pick in the eighth round, but Youkilis likely won't be the organization's savior. His best hope lies in the 'control the strike zone and the power will come eventually' theory, one that several teams have come to embrace. It worked for the incumbent third baseman, Bill Mueller, years after most had written him off as a singles hitter.

Ironically, thanks to Mueller's remarkable 2003 season and Boston's needs elsewhere, Youkilis' most important contribution to the team's future could be what he commands on the trade market.

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