Kevin Youkilis: Better Than You Think
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.
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.