Change-UpMay 26, 2010
Kevin Youkilis: Better Than You Think
By Patrick Sullivan

When the 2007 season wrapped, the Boston Red Sox were World Series Champions and their starting first baseman two seasons running was Kevin Youkilis. He was a championsip caliber player, which is to say that he was good enough to play everyday for a team that could win a championship. To heap more praise than the "championship caliber" label implies would have been to overstate his contributions.

To get an understanding of how Youkilis stacked up heading into 2008, you can check out our AL East preview from March of that year. Youkilis is referred to as "average at best" with the bat and is more or less an afterthought as we discuss the Red Sox. There was little in Youkilis's performance record that would have suggested he was poised to become one of the very best players in all of baseball. In 2006 and 2007, he hit .284/.385/.440, productive but not elite as first basemen go. Since the beginning of 2008, Youkilis has hit .311/.409/.567. He's a superstar.

I decided I wanted to write on this topic, on how good a player Youkilis had become, a few months back and was hoping Youkilis would get off to a good start so that I could. This past off-season, many in the Boston media criticized Theo Epstein's approach to assembling the 2010 team, doing so on the basis that without Jason Bay the Red Sox would lack an "impact" bat. The prevailing wisdom of December 2009 is summed up nicely in this Dan Shaughnessy quote:

The Sox still need a couple of bats. They still need one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera.

Well let's have a look at some of the guys Dan mentions and see how they stack up against Youkilis since the start of the 2008 campaign:

               AVG   OBP   SLG  OPS+
J. Bay        .281  .381  .522   133
M. Holliday   .314  .396  .518   136
A. Gonzalez   .279  .386  .526   152
M. Cabrera    .311  .378  .549   139
K. Youkilis   .311  .409  .567   149

The only player of the bunch even comparable to Youkilis as an offensive player is Gonzalez. The Red Sox had their superstar slugger all along.


Somehow, Baseball Reference got better recently. Using Sean Smith's Wins Above Replacement data, they have compiled WAR totals for all players and are even keeping running tallies in season. In their Play Index feature, you can now sort players by WAR. This represents a major enhancement because now Play Index data (1) incorporates fielding and (2) has a better offensive measure than, say, OPS+ thanks to proper weighting of things like on-base percentage and base running.

Ok, back to Youkilis now. If you asked smart baseball minds who the best four players in baseball have been over the last 2+ seasons, the responses would be more or less unanimous. Nobody questions the great Joe Mauer's place in the game, and the same goes for Albert Pujols. Two middle infielders whose numbers are just shockingly awesome, Chase Utley and Hanley Ramirez, round out the list. From there, however, if you ask folks who the 5th best position player in baseball is, or has been over the last 2+ seasons, that's when the answers start to range.

Certainly Adrian Gonzalez is in the mix, and so too is Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. It's hard to ignore Evan Longoria, Justin Morneau has really emerged, Ichiro Suzuki plays such a great right field and is a consistent offensive performer. Has David Wright fallen off too much? What about Youkilis's teammate, Dustin Pedroia? These would all be viable guesses, but I wonder how many would say Youkilis?

Well here it is, the top-10 players by WAR since 2008.

Rk Player WAR/pos PA BA OBP SLG
1 Albert Pujols 20.2 1537 .337 .447 .639
2 Joe Mauer 18.5 1391 .346 .427 .516
3 Chase Utley 16.9 1578 .289 .393 .529
4 Hanley Ramirez 15.8 1535 .318 .402 .533
5 Kevin Youkilis 14.8 1408 .311 .409 .567
6 Mark Teixeira 13.4 1594 .289 .388 .536
7 Evan Longoria 12.6 1372 .283 .359 .534
8 Adrian Gonzalez 11.9 1570 .279 .386 .526
9 Justin Morneau 11.9 1491 .300 .385 .530
10 Dustin Pedroia 11.9 1653 .306 .370 .472
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/26/2010.

I don't have much more to add, other than to point out what's now obvious: that Kevin Youkilis is a true superstar. Given that he is having his best season at the age of 31, in just his 5th year of full-time duty, it's hard not to wonder what might have been had he been given a Big League job earlier in his career. Nonetheless we should all appreciate what Youkilis has become, one of the best players in all of baseball and the caliber of player any championship-aspirant club would do well to build around.


The metric "how many of my Yankee-rooting friends tag Youk as their most-hated player" also buttresses your analysis. :-)

Do you write about any other teams?

Just realized how snarky that sounded. It was really just hard to interpret internet sarcasm.

Loved the article.

Youk is good, not great. Probably right at his peak now.

Will, wouldn't that mean he is great right now though?

How much does WAR take park factors into account? It must be hard to account for the Padres stats as they have such hugely skewed stats home and away. I never thought that Youk was as good as Gonzalez (2nd best road OPS since the start of 2008).

Well, Youk can also play some third base, and Gonzo can't.

I was a little surprised Alex Rodriguez wasn't in the mix, but over the past two seasons, he's been merely great instead of awesome like in '07. Ol' Father Time strikes out everybody sooner or later.

Look at the numbers Youk has been putting up this May. Over a month, he's been hitting a .542 wOBA with a .333 babip, which is well within career norms. This May, he's been the best hitter in baseball by far, and without babip-inflated numbers (Morneau). Sure his HR/FB rate is crazy high, but that's still amazing. He has a 7% higher walk rate than anyone else (27.6%), and a 3.22 BB/K.

Basically, Youk has been absolutely amazing this May, and a lot of the reasons why he has aren't luck-dependent.

I went back and read the article by Dan Shaughnessy and while that quote is the point of his article, nowhere in that piece do I read or get the impression that the Red Sox lacked an impact bat on the team. Maybe that was the prevailing wisdom at the time, but using that article and quote to aver that Shaughnessy believes that Youkilis is not an impact bat is misleading and incorrect.

My reading of the article is that in order to have an offense that's competitive with the Yankees, the Red Sox needed at least another power bat. Feel free to argue that Youkilis is underrated, however, you're doing Shaughnessy a disservice by quoting his name and article with this piece. Unless you can find other things he wrote in the past year that state that Youkilis is not an impact bat, it's my position that you're falsely stating what Shaughnessy believes about Youkilis.

I'd be more concerned if I thought Shaughnessy had a reputation for more sophisticated analysis that was being maligned. But it's Shaughnessy, so whatever.

Love this piece. Youk is chronically underrated, in large part I think because he gets so much of his value from his glove (He's been the best defensive 1B in baseball for a few years, all while subbing in at 3B and playing above average there too). He also has very un-sexy skills, great patience, high walk rates and as much gap power as home run power. I think there is a good chance he will age very well with those skills since none are really "young player skills" (in the Bill James sense) though he is likely at his peak right now.

I would venture a guess that the 2010 sober/non-drinking/undrunken version of Miguelito Cabrera might be the superior of the Yukeman and quite possibly even A-Gon....but, that's just an unbiased opinion of an objective baseball fan indifferent to the biases of Sawx worshippers. How old are these three guys anyway?