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July 19, 2012
Did Boston Trade Youkilis Too Soon?
In July of 2004, the Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra, one of their longest-tenured and most popular players, to the Chicago Cubs. Garciaparra was still productive, but he’d just turned 30, and both his bat and his glove had slipped. Worse, he’d been wounded by Boston’s attempt to trade for Alex Rodriguez the previous winter and had reportedly become a distraction in the clubhouse. With Garciaparra a few months away from free agency, the Sox made the bold decision to ship him to Chicago for Orlando Cabrera, improving both their defense and their chemistry with a single swap.
We know how that trade turned out. The Red Sox won the World Series, and Garciaparra continued to decline, turning in a subpar season for the Cubs in ’05 and remaining only marginally effective until his retirement in 2010. According to a 2005 article in The Baltimore Sun, Garciaparra “was said to be stunned and depressed for the first week after his trade,” but “later came to appreciate the change of scenery, a fresh start, less pressure, different expectations.” The trade might have made him happier, but it didn’t help him recapture his youth. The Sox were smart to trade him when they did.
Late last month, the Red Sox made a similar mid-season swap with a Chicago club, trading another over-30 fan favorite and impending free agent who’d become a divisive force in the clubhouse and a diminished one on the field. This time, the team was the White Sox, and the player was Kevin Youkilis.
From 2006, his first full year, through 2010, Youkilis was Boston’s most valuable player, averaging nearly five WARP per season. But in 2011, Youkilis was worth just over two wins, as separate DL stints for lower back tightness and a sports hernia sapped his strength and limited his availability. He had surgery for the sports hernia last October, but this season, the back problems returned, sending him to the DL for 23 days. When he was able to play, he played poorly, hitting just .233/.315/.377. Thirty-three years old, with a balky back and a below-average bat, Youkilis looked like he might be approaching the end of the line. Boston decided to bail out before he reached it, sending him to the White Sox on June 24th for roughly $2.5 million in salary relief, since-released utility man Brent Lillibridge, and Zach Stewart, a low-ceiling right-handed starter now pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket.
Almost four weeks later, the question has to be asked: Did the Red Sox sell too soon? In 19 games and 86 plate appearances after the trade, Youkilis has hit .315/.407/.534. Meanwhile, Will Middlebrooks, the 23-year-old Red Sox rookie third baseman whose .326/.365/.583 line at the time of the trade seemed to make Youkilis expendable, has slumped to .192/.204/.346 since, as an unrefined approach has taken its toll. (His 5.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the third-worst of any AL batter with at least 200 PA.) On a team level, the Red Sox have gone 9-11, while the White Sox have won 12 of 19.
The Youkilis the White Sox have seen so far looks a lot like the Youkilis the Red Sox saw from 2009-11:
The third baseman’s walk, strikeout, and home run rates, BABIP, and overall offensive output (TAv) have been much closer to their customary levels since the swap, and while his groundball rate is still above its previous levels, it has fallen slightly since he left Boston. Given the third baseman’s reputation for patience, one might expect that Youkilis’ resurgence would have been a result of improved plate discipline. In fact, the opposite has been the case. Youkilis has actually been much more aggressive since switching socks.
With the White Sox, Youkilis has seen fewer pitches per plate appearances. He’s been thrown the same percentage of pitches inside the strike zone, but he’s swung at many more of them. And even though he’s swinging much more often, he’s missing more rarely. The biggest increase in swing percentage has come on pitches over the middle third. Those are the pitches against which hitters are supposed to do the most damage, and rather than letting them go by, Youkilis is now targeting and touching them up.
Youkilis’ hits haven’t been cheap. On video, only two of his 23 safeties for the White Sox—a seeing-eye grounder on June 25th that found outfield grass to the left of the second-base bag and a blooper to the right side of the infield that he barely beat out on July 8th—appear playable or weakly hit. There is one reason to be slightly skeptical about his resurgence: although the trade didn’t take him out of the American League, it did take him to a weaker division. The pitchers Youkilis faced before leaving Boston allowed a collective .260 TAv, a league-average figure. The pitchers who’ve opposed him since he joined the White Sox, though, have allowed a .271 TAv as a group, and the 19 hurlers he’s had hits off of have a collective 4.61 ERA, almost half a run above league average. No other hitter with at least 80 PA in the majors this season has faced a less successful group of pitchers than Youkilis has with the White Sox.
However, weaker competition can explain only part of Youkilis’ post-trade bounceback. According to Bobby Valentine, Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said “he had no doubt that if (Youkilis) went somewhere else he’d play better.” Thus far, Youkilis has made Magadan look smart (if not quite as smart as he might have looked had Youk hit better for Boston). Youkilis isn’t getting any younger, and his back (or another body part) could cause trouble at any time. But on a pure performance basis, the Red Sox may have sold too soon, as Youkilis seemed to demonstrate with a 3-for-4 performance in his return to Fenway on Monday night. PECOTA projects Youkilis to be worth almost a win and a half more than Middlebrooks over the rest of the season, and with Boston sitting just a game away from a Wild Card spot, a one- or two-win swing could prove decisive.
Still, there’s more to the story. Earlier this week, Valentine pinned some of the blame for Boston’s beleaguered clubhouse on Youkilis, acknowledging that some teammates had issues with him and claiming that Youkilis “made a big issue out of” and didn’t want to move past the critical comments Valentine made about him in April. If true, it’s possible that the Red Sox will benefit more from improved chemistry than it will suffer from lesser stats in the post-Youkilis era. It’s also impossible to say whether Youkilis would have had the same hot streak in Boston, since some of the improvement could stem from his fresh start and the added motivation that the trade may have provided.
All we can say for sure is that the Youkilis who starred in Boston for the last several years has been back for the past few weeks. Unfortunately for his former team, if his comeback continues, the beneficiaries—and quite possibly the proud owners of a playoff berth—will be the White Sox.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .