May 5, 2009
You Could Look It Up
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 .