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May 5, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Kevin Youkilis

by Steven Goldman

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Since the first moment that some players learned to specialize in selectivity at the plate, they were singled out as somehow hurting their teams. Though they were getting on base at a high clip, and while it is necessary to have batters on base to score runs, they were seen as somehow cheating their teammates and employers. Roy Cullenbine, a 1940s outfielder who posted a career .408 on-base percentage on an average of 117 walks per 162 games played, was traded four times and waived once in a nine-season major league career because he was perceived to be lazy, preferring to work a walk rather than actually hit. Ted Williams averaged 143 walks per 162 games played, but was practically accused of cowardice because he apparently preferred to take a pass in the clutch, thereby handing off the RBI opportunities to lesser hitters.

Kevin Youkilis initially received some of that same opprobrium for his selective approach at the plate. Ironically, the "Greek God of Walks," as he was nicknamed in Moneyball, has always been a minor deity at best when it comes to taking ball four. Youkilis has always been a patient hitter, but he's never made walking as big a part of his game in the way the true walking gods did, guys like Williams and Eddie Yost, the "Walking Man." On his pro career, Youkilis has posted just a single 100-walk season to date, that coming in 2003, a year split between Double- and Triple-A. His major league high is 91, taken in 2006.

Of course, walks aren't the only expression of selectivity. The most basic expression of selectivity is the number of pitches a hitter sees per plate appearance. Shawon Dunston, the famously impatient Cubs shortstop, averaged 3.3 pitches per plate appearance when the league average was 3.7. Wade Boggs, his more persnickety contemporary, saw over four. Along with such present-day players as Jason Giambi (4.3 pitches per PA from 2005-2009), Jack Cust (4.4), and Adam Dunn (4.3), Youkilis is more on the Boggs side of the spectrum, seeing 4.3 pitches per trip to the plate. Robinson Cano (3.3 for his career) he ain't.

Youkilis' patience is at the heart of a debate fueled by his changing profile as a hitter. When he came to the majors, he showed a decent batting average and moderate power. From 2004 to 2006 he hit .275/.379/.423 in 263 games (his first season was a partial one, and the second was abbreviated due to injuries). With that kind of power production and sub-.300 average, his walks were going to be an important part of his holding up his offense at a reasonable level, especially if he was going to be playing more first base than third, which would be the case as along once Mike Lowell decided to remain with the Red Sox.

The shape of Youkilis' contributions began to change in 2007, when he took fewer walks (one every 8.1 plate appearances instead of one every 7.5 PA in 2006) and began to show a little more home-run power, bopping 16 home runs, an increase of three, and raising his isolated power from .149 to .165. Last season, the Youkilis transformation seemed to complete itself as he erupted for .312/.390/.549 rates, 43 doubles, 29 home runs, a high berth in the MVP balloting-and only 55 unintentional walks. Given his his unintentional walk totals declined from 91 to 77 to 55, and his improved overall contributions at the plate, there would seem to be a connection between a more aggressive Youkilis and a more productive Youkilis.

There is some truth to the notion that he has become more aggressive over time. For example, in his first exposure to the majors, he had just 39 plate appearances that resolved early in the count-on the first pitch or at 1-0 or 0-1. These accounted for 15.7 percent of his plate appearances. Discounting his abortive 2005, his percentage of early-resolving plate appearances grew each season, rising to 22.2 percent last year. This was an extremely successful adaptation; in 2008, Youkilis hit 12 of his 29 home runs early by swinging early, batting .439 in the process. There was a concomitant drop in the percentage of his plate appearances ending in a walk, sinking from 13.3 percent in 2004 to a bare 8.9 percent last year. His pitches per plate appearance bottomed out at 4.02.

Another way to see Youkilis' transformation into a more aggressive hitter is to see the percentage of pitches that he swung at. Not only has he swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone over time, increasing his percentage of such swings from 15.1 percent in 2006 to 20.9 percent last year, but his overall percentage of pitches swung at rose from 37 percent in 2004 to 41 percent past year.

That said, it should be noted that the changes made by Youkilis between his strong 2007 and his All-Star or MVP-caliber 2008 season were quite small. His percentage of early-resolving plate appearances rose only from 20.6 to 22.2, and his percentage of pitches swung at increased from 39.3 percent to 41.1 percent. Moreover, his number of pitches seen per plate appearance remained quite high, ranking 33rd among all qualified major leaguers (Nick Swisher led with 4.5 pitches per PA, followed by Cust with 4.4 and Dunn with 4.3). Taken in the broad stroke across these seasons, these are incremental changes; while Youkilis may no longer be the Greek God of Walks, this was always a misnomer, and he's still a long way from being Rob Picciolo, Alfredo Griffin, or A.J. Pierzynski.

As if to underscore the point, Youkilis is off to a terrific start, batting .393/.505/.719 with six home runs through Monday, and he's doing it old-school Greek style. Early-resolving PAs are down to 17.9 percent, his lowest rate since 2004. Pitches per PA are up to 4.28, good for 15th in the majors. His walk rate, 15.1 percent, is the highest of his career, but that's because he's been handed five intentionals by opposing skippers in the early going; his unintentional walk rate is 10.1 percent. Had he walked (or been walked deliberately) at the same rate in last season's 621 PA, he would have finished the season with 94 walks of all types, rather than 62. He's still doing some damage early in the count, but he's also been oddly dangerous with two strikes on him.

In short, Youkilis hasn't sacrificed his selectivity, he's increased his versatility. The Greek God of Walks is dead; long live the Boston God of Channeled Aggression: swing when it's smart, sit when it's not, and never mind the labels.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Walks,  Kevin Youkilis

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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krissbeth

Does he see more pitches/AB against particular teams, like, oh, say, the Yankees? It always seems like both teams ramp up their patience against each other.

May 05, 2009 12:55 PM
rating: 0
 
judyblum

Just an opinion, but I think it's more that Red Sox and Yankees pitchers get more nibbly against each other than that their hitters get more patient.

May 05, 2009 15:23 PM
rating: 0
 
Dan Malkiel

"I've seen [Youkilis] in the shower, and believe me, he's not the Greek god of anything." -- Terry Francona

May 05, 2009 14:46 PM
rating: 3
 
JayhawkBill

Steven, thanks for a great analysis.

As a Red Sox fan, I've noticed a correlation that wouldn't be as visible to a student of the game reading the national media. Kevin Youkilis became a better power hitter and showed less of a late-season decline when he started dating Enza Sambataro, who is now Mrs. Kevin Youkilis. Enza is a beautiful, intelligent woman who handles herself gracefully with the media, and I would expect that it's possible that Kevin Youkilis is simply "a better man" for being with her, "better" being more tangibly measured in VORP and MLVr for an MLB player than it is for most lucky husbands.

Our workplace successes and failures are functions of both our professional skills and our personal ability to focus and to succeed. Marital relations factor into that. One can look at Jason Varitek's collapse in June and July last season as evidence of what marital challenges can cause: his horrific slump correlated directly with the span between his wife moving out on him and his eventual choice to file for divorce. I'm sure that there are other cases like Tek's. I feel that Kevin Youkilis is an example of the converse of this; I feel that Enza Sambataro's influence on his life has made him a better ballplayer. I know that his run production has improved while he's been seeing her, because this article documents that change perfectly.

May 05, 2009 15:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

While personal issues can affect a player's performance, it's hard to subscribe too much to one personal event or another, and even harder to quantify it. You could say that Youkilis has become a better power hitter since Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president and thus, being relieved of the fear of weapons of mass dstruction, Youkilis decided to party at the plate like it was 1999. Can't prove it though, especially without some direct and applicable quote about how Obama (or how Mrs. Youkilis) affected his ability to concentrate.

May 06, 2009 07:33 AM
rating: 0
 
JayhawkBill

"Can't prove it?"

One cannot prove that stat changes with age are the result of age, but it's generally accepted in the community. One cannot prove that stat changes with change of home ballpark are the result of home ballpark, but, again, it's generally accepted. One cannot prove that personal joy or sorrow changes stats, but it's generally accepted in casual discussion of baseball players, just as the joys and tragedies of life are accepted to affect all of us.

Jason Varitek batted .155/.247/.233 in 39 games between his return to Boston when his wife Karen moved out and his filing for divorce on July 28 last year. He was hitting .269/.349/.462 before she left him, and he recovered to .225/.333/.362 after that, normal decline for a starting catcher over the course of a season. One cannot prove that his decline from a quality MLB catcher to an inadequate backup catcher in June and July was the result of personal issues, but the coincidence is more striking than the norm for changes in either age or ballpark.

Kevin Youkilis used to have a reputation among some fans for enjoying the nightlife and staying out late, and, perhaps, tiring over the course of the season as a result of his social life. Here is the difference between his first-half OPS and his second-half OPS for each season of his MLB career, 2004-2008:

2004: -.125
2005: -.045 (only 22 PA in second half)
2006: -.146
2007: -.173
2008: +.065

While one "can't prove it," something changed, and the key difference that I can cite is that Youk proposed to Enza Sambataro between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. If you see another key factor that would increase Youk's OPS by 115 points and increase his second-half OPS by 251 points between the two years, I'm always eager to learn. It's not trivial, and it's not a tiny sample size, and I've heard of no other factor that changed that should have made such a difference.

If you choose to maintain that I "can't prove it"...well, Oleoay, you make many posts here, and it strikes me that you have, on several occasions, made accurate observations that meet reasonable standards of readers' interest without meeting rigorous standards of proof. If you'd choose that I challenge all of your posts of that ilk with correlations to the rise and fall of politicians and silly potential consequences, I could do that, but I'd rather that you reconsider the possibility that, on occasion, significant changes in lifestyle might herald significant changes in performance, and that Kevin Youkilis might, possibly, be a player for whom such a change might apply.

May 06, 2009 20:24 PM
rating: 0
 
krissbeth

In football, of course, a woman ruins everything. Ask Romo, or, according to one columnist, Brady. So, don't go too far with this approach.

May 06, 2009 06:42 AM
rating: 0
 
Drew Miller

The "Greek God of Walks" moniker *was* accurate at one time--just in the minors. It appears to refer to his 276 PA in 2001 (73 BB) and his 417 PA at Portland in 2003 (86 BB).

Still, he was no Jack Cust.

May 06, 2009 14:24 PM
rating: 0
 
James Martin Cole

So now Youkilis is a good player? Two months ago his employment was "sentimentality run amok."

May 07, 2009 07:12 AM
rating: 0
 
gbeach

Could roids also have contributed to Youkilis' power surge last year and so far this?

May 07, 2009 14:06 PM
rating: -1
 
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