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40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profiles: Kevin Youkilis

Outside of Boston, few people seem to recognize just how good Kevin Youkilis really is. How many people would list the Red Sox first base among top 20 bestt players in the game? The past two seasons, Youk has struggled with injuries and missed a large amount of playing time. Yet, even with those injuries Youk has been the 17th best player in baseball by Fangraphs version of wins above replacement, just behind Joe Mauer. He has been the twelfth best hitter in the game over those five seasons by wRC+ and his ability to play both first and third effectively helped the team add Adrian Gonzalez to the lineup while still keeping David Ortiz at DH.

With a healthy Youkilis in the line up the Red Sox boast the game’s top offensive attack. He is the key right handed hitter in the middle of the line up, getting on base, hitting for power and working pitchers in every at bat. Before the move back to third base Youk was a good candidate for the best fielding first baseman in the game. At third he is far from being a liability, but at 32 years old, he lacks the range to be a top tier fielder at the hot corner. Breaking down Youkilis’ game, we can see why he ranks among baseball’s elite players and also why that might surprising some people.

Hitting

When people talk about Kevin Youkilis, they usually talk about his ability to draw a walk. Certainly, the “Greek God Of Walks” has earned the title, walking in 12.6% of his plate appearances for his career, a fantastic rate to be sure. However, that moniker has shaped the perception of Youkilis a bit more than he deserves. There are a number of players who draw walks at a higher rate than Youk, players like Carlos Pena, Jack Cust or Jim Thome. What separates Youk from many of the other players who walk at such high rates is his contact ability. Youk swing far less than the average hitter, but he makes contact more than the average hitter as well. With his patience and the ability to put the bat on the ball, he becomes a much more difficult player to set down than some one like Carlos Pena, who walks a ton, but also swings and misses at a high rate.

While Youk is a reasonably powerful hitter in the grand scheme of things, as a first baseman, he was middling in that respect. Among first basemen, the past five years he is the 7th best hitter by wRC+, which accurately values all of his offensive contributions, but he ranks just 14th by ISO and 13th by home runs. This goes a long way in explaining why so many people underrate Youkilis. First base is a power hitter’s position and Youk, gets more value from his on base skills and contact than the long ball. While a player like Ryan Howard gets the press’ attention with tons of home runs, Youk has been far less likely to make an out, making him the overall superior hitter by a wide margin but also making him less likely to make the nightly highlight reels.

Youk tends to pull the ball, especially against lefties, and that is where the bulk of his power lies. He can take the ball the other way, however, and his gap power is considerable, producing a large number of doubles in the right-center and left-center gaps. His command of the strike zone is fantastic so pitchers need to attack the zone or else risk putting him on base. Pitchers with a plus slider have the best chance at getting Youk to swing and miss. Whatever arsenal a pitcher might possess, they need to be ready for a long battle when you steps in the box. He sees an average of 4.3 pitches per plate appearance and regularly fouls off anything close with two strikes against him. He often takes close pitches, even when behind in the count, so painting the edges of the plate are a good strategy for getting him to strike out, but of course, he is more than happy to take the walk if the pitch misses.

Defense

As a first baseman Youk possessed perhaps the best range and the best arm at the position. Having come up as an average fielding third baseman, he was more athletic in the field than the vast majority of his fellow first basemen and slightly overqualified for the position. With the acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez, Youk has had to move back to third. While he is still a capable defender at the position, the added strain from the tougher defensive position does not help the veteran stay healthy and productive.

Over his career at third, Youk has been basically average with the glove. Total Zone credits him with 12 runs saved over his career and UZR gives him 6 runs saved. In the last three seasons, Youk has a negative UZR in 1,457 innings at the position, with a -3.6 runs in his 948 innings last year. Injuries and age have reduced his range and movement, but Youk is still a solid defender with good instincts and an accurate arm. This season the Red Sox have Nick Punto and Mike Aviles available to fill in when Youkilis needs time off and to add defensive value to the infield in his absence. It is likely that Youk will be limited to around 100 games at third base, with some addition playing time coming at first base and at DH to try to keep him healthy and productive this season.

Kevin Youkilis may be underrated by the national media and by many fans outside ofBostonbut he is a major key to the Red Sox 2012 season. With Youk’s right handed bat in the middle of the line up every day along side left handed hitter Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz the Red Sox have a line up that will wear down pitchers and put runners on base and runs on the board. Without him, the Red Sox are a far less intimidating team, especially for lefty starters. If Youkilis can return to being the player he was from 2007-2009 the Red Sox should easily remain the best offense in baseball.