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July 19, 2012

Overthinking It

Did Boston Trade Youkilis Too Soon?

by Ben Lindbergh

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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:

Period

K%

BB%

GB%

AB/HR

BABIP

TAv

2009-2011

19.0

13.2

38.2

20.4

.328

.319

2012 (BOS)

23.6

8.5

50.9

36.5

.288

.248

2012 (CHA)

16.3

12.8

46.7

18.3

.339

.321

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.

Period

P/PA

ZONE_RT

SWING_RT

Z_SWING_RT

O_SWING_RT

CONTACT_RT

2012 (BOS)

4.58

51.7

36.9

55.0

17.5

82.4

2012 (CHA)

4.27

51.7

44.0

64.6

21.9

90.2

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 2012 Swing % by Strike Zone Section

 

With Red Sox

With White Sox

Inside

49.3

46.1

Middle

61.2

84.2

Outside

51.2

61.9

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.

Rob McQuown and Colin Wyers provided research assistance for this story.

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

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

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

BP Comment Quick Links

krissbeth

I have some incredible ambivalence about Youk. On the one hand, I'm glad that he's doing well; I've always been a fan of the not-actually-Greek God of Walks. On the other hand, it's tinged with sadness that he's doing it for someone else.

At least I have clarity in my rage at Valentine, though.

Jul 19, 2012 10:13 AM
rating: 5
 
apbadogs
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

So 2 1/2 weeks of somewhat "hot" hitting warrant a 1,300 word analysis and speculation?

Jul 19, 2012 10:14 AM
rating: -8
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

It's 3 1/2 weeks, and sure, why not?

Jul 19, 2012 10:25 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

As we have learned, a proper sample size is anywhere from 5 atbats in a pitcher vs hitter matchup (Courtesy of Root Sports broadcaters) to a season and a half (Courtesy of people other than Root Sports broadcasters).

Jul 19, 2012 13:21 PM
rating: 3
 
Nacho999

I was thinking the same thing as the deal was being made...Youkilis might be a lot of things, but he's a heckuva player...And I'm a diehard Yankee fan...The quick strike Red Sox of 2004-2011 seem to be a thing of the past for a minute or two here...I realize Cody Ross and Middlebrooks and Saltamacchia are hitting home runs, but they somehow don't seem as dangerous as Ortiz in his prime, Manny in his prime, Millar, Bay, Nixon, Drew and half a dozen other names I'm relieved to no longer see in Boston's lineup...They're still plenty dangerous, but it's a lot better to only worry about them if we play them in the post season than it is to sweat out making the playoffs and having to play them 19 times while doing it...I still detest Interleague Play and the Unbalanced Schedule, but I realize I'm in the minority. Anyway, bottom line?, Youkilis is one tough customer with a bat in his hands. Glad he's no longer Boston's property...And they got nothing for him...I hope Youkilis, and not Valentine, was the alleged issue in the clubhouse or Boston might have just made a huge mistake...Just my two cents...That dude is a grinder and a winner...

Jul 19, 2012 10:19 AM
rating: 4
 
Richard Bergstrom

In theory, the Red Sox were supposed to have better chemistry for replacing Francona for Valentine... they're running out of people to replace though.

While I do think they traded Youkilis too soon, I think the real issue is that the Red Sox sabotaged his value by not giving him playing time and torpedoing him in the media. They would've been better hanging onto him, even as a bench player, then acquiring the flotsam they got back.

Jul 19, 2012 12:10 PM
rating: 5
 
Richard Bergstrom

For comparison's sake, the Astros still got more for Carlos Lee.

Jul 19, 2012 13:19 PM
rating: 3
 
eighteen

I don't think Boston wanted to get rid of Youkilis. It's just that between Ortiz, Gonzalez, Middlebrooks, and Youkilis, someone had to go; and for a variety of (mostly good) reasons, they chose Youk.

The amazing thing about the trade is how little Boston got. I'm stunned no one valued Youk more than a couple million bucks, with a Lillibridge and Stewart thrown in. What the hell was Pittsburgh thinking?

Jul 19, 2012 12:19 PM
rating: 4
 
Duranimal

Or the Dodgers. He would look pretty good at first or third right now. Much better than whoever they're going to over pay for.

Jul 19, 2012 17:10 PM
rating: 0
 
woodenbats

I agree completely.

As to, "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,"-maybe, and I'd be happy for Youk; but maybe not - Sox, Red, took three of four from Sox, White, with Youk sidelined for game 4 with a stiff back. That is as much reason to make an 'if' guess about the future as Youk's good numbers for 21 games.

Jul 20, 2012 18:03 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

You think a 3-1 record over 4 games is more important than the Red Sox's 48-47 record vs the White Sox 50-44 record? Or the idea that the Red Sox are still fourth in their divison?

Jul 21, 2012 20:06 PM
rating: 0
 
cooper7d7

better to sell a year early than a year late?

Jul 19, 2012 12:26 PM
rating: 2
 
Chucko

I dig that logic in general, except that the Sox could've gotten nothing for him next year too ;D !

The downright insistence on letting it be known that Youk had to go in short order _in itself_ reduced the return they'd get for him. And as mentioned in other comments, if you bench him and effectively label him as a disruptive asshole then you shouldn't be surprised when no other team wants him that badly.

What troubles me even more is the ever-increasing tendency of the front office towards denigrating team members before letting them go. Or, as with Papi, before re-signing them! It's unnecessary, transparent, eminently avoidable, and it will only engender ill will. It smacks of the egos of the highly-placed few being valued more than the happiness of the many, and I don't expect to see much on-field success until it's ironed out.

Jul 19, 2012 15:29 PM
rating: 6
 
Richard Bergstrom

On the flipside, Youk doesn't have to be the Youk of old to benefit the White Sox either. All he had to really be better than was, well, Lillibridge.

Jul 19, 2012 19:30 PM
rating: 4
 
mpirani

I've become increasingly worried about the post-Epstein Red Sox brain trust. First, trading Lowrie and Reddick for relievers. In hindsight, those trades look terrible, but even at the time, trading good and promising position players for relievers? Best-case scenario, you'd get maybe 60 good innings out of each guy. Even the players we thought Lowrie and Reddick were when they were traded have to be worth more than that. The Youkilis situation was just so poorly handled. As Chucko indicated above, it's stupid to essentially destroy someone's trade value before you try to move him, but that's what they did. Not exactly an inspiring start to the new regime.

Jul 19, 2012 21:46 PM
rating: 3
 
ostrowj1

I would guess the Red Sox's thinking is this. "We are the Red Sox, we play by a different set of rules than small market teams. The fan base, and the revenue it brings, is more important to us than a few fringe prospects. Of primary importance is convincing the fans that Youk needs to go. If doing so costs us a few fringy prospects, so be it. We are the Red Sox, we can eat that cost without blinking an eye."

That works so long as they only have a few of these... What is amazing is how many "bad character" guys the Red Sox seemed to have on their "good character" championship teams.

Jul 20, 2012 06:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

That Red Sox line of thinking works only as long as the Red Sox make the playoffs.

Jul 20, 2012 08:49 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

"What troubles me even more is the ever-increasing tendency of the front office towards denigrating team members before letting them go. Or, as with Papi, before re-signing them! It's unnecessary, transparent, eminently avoidable, and it will only engender ill will. It smacks of the egos of the highly-placed few being valued more than the happiness of the many, and I don't expect to see much on-field success until it's ironed out."

Never were truer words spoken.

The core problem in Boston is the management that has produced this disaster and continue to only make it worse with each and every move.

Jul 22, 2012 20:31 PM
rating: 0
 
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