Kevin Youkilis leaves the Red Sox as one of the very best hitters in franchise history. As former teammate Nick Punto so nicely put it yesterday, “Not too many Boston Red Sox players have two world championships and he was a heck of a player for this organization.” That pretty much sums it up.
Youk gained early fame in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball as “The Greek God of Walks” and for good reason. His strike zone command and pitch identification abilities were off-the-charts good. He had a career .442 Minor League on-base percentage.
As a four-year college player with limited raw athleticism, Youk seemed to understand his route to the Majors. It’s not that he was any sort of great Bill James disciple, it’s just he understood that his leg up on others would be to swing at better pitches to hit. In the process, he happened to walk a whole bunch, too. This determination and focus earned him a chance to play with the Red Sox in 2004. He was there at Yankee Stadium for Game 7, rushing the field for arguably the most jubilant moment Boston baseball fans have ever experienced.
If work ethic and clarity of purpose marked his Minor League career, professionalism defined his early Major League years. Youkilis had a skill set that likely would have played well in the big leagues as early as 2002 but it wasn’t until 2004 that Youk got his chance, playing in 72 games. He played just in 44 in 2005. Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller and David Ortiz were all in the mix, so where was he going to slot in full time? Youkilis was denied opportunities to accrue service time, and thus his chance at a big payday sooner rather than later. I don’t recall him complaining about any of this.
At the age of 27 Youkilis became a full-time Major League player and just like in the Minor Leagues it was his keen eye that distinguished him. He had a good glove at first base and could mix in a little pop, but his profile for his first two full-time seasons was as an “on base guy.” An “on base guy” gets more love now but back then there was still this notion that a pitcher issued bases on balls. Batters didn’t necessarily earn them. Youk’s skill set was underappreciated, even as he played pretty well in 2006 and 2007.
Youkilis came into the 2008 season with a career .434 slugging percentage and, that season, slugged .569. He found his power stroke and became one of the very best players in all of baseball. After that season, he and another elite first baseman, Mark Teixeira, were awarded new contracts. Teixeira’s total contract value was $180 million, and Youkilis’s was a little over $41 million in guaranteed money.
That wasn’t because Teixeira was more than four times better than Youkilis, of course. It was a matter of service time. While Youkilis was blocked in Boston, Teixiera was performing in the Major Leagues after shooting through the Minor League ranks as one of baseball’s best prospects. Even though he was a year younger than Youkilis, he had accrued the service time necessary to hit unrestricted free agency. Youkilis on the other hand had come too far to risk a lifetime of financial security for a shot at a payday like Teixeira’s when he would be three years older.
That doesn’t mean it sat well with him, though. He earned $3 million in 2008 while emerging as a superstar. In 2009 he played even better, outperforming Teixeira while earning about $13 million less than him. In 2010, even though his season was shortened by injuries, he once again put up some of the best rate stats in baseball. He knew he was a bargain, and he knew he was a bargain because as a youngster he was unheralded and a quiet team player who did what his employer asked when he could have been on his way to a bigger payday with another organization. Nobody should feel bad for Kevin Youkilis, but nobody could blame him for carrying on with a chip on his shoulder.
Back in college, it was his body type and mediocre draft prospects (Youk was an 8th rounder in 2001). A decade ago it was his questionable quickness and lack of power. Seven years ago it was an incumbency in Boston that Youk may or may not have been able to improve upon. Three years ago it was a relatively small pay check and stature that fell short of his productivity. Last year it was “sure I guess I’ll move over to third base.” And for the last couple of months it was a new manager who threw him under the bus early, and it was embarrassment over his health, output and bench role. Put simply, the Red Sox got WAY more out of Youkilis than he got out of them. I think Youkilis knows that, and I think Youkilis feels he deserved better than how things were playing out thus far in 2012.
That brings us to the trade. Basically there are two lines of criticism of the Red Sox that I have seen. One is that they are “selling low” on a player not far removed from superstardom. The other is that they could have accomplished the desired result of shifting Adrian Gonzalez back to first while making Will Middlebrooks the full-time third baseman without dealing Youkilis. He could ride the pine and be a potentially useful bat off the bench.
Both ignore the bigger picture. Youkilis is not a bench player. He’s too proud, he’s worked too hard, and he’s got that chip on his shoulder after all these years of feeling unappreciated. His departure may amount to “addition by subtraction” in that a clubhouse cloud is lifted but there’s something more important going on. This was the chance for Boston to do right by Kevin Youkilis. Thanks to paperwork, the CBA and the peculiarities of timing, Boston always enjoyed leverage over Youkilis. Up until his very last day working for the club, the Red Sox had it in that retaining Youkilis as a bench player had plenty of appeal. But it was time for him to go, plain and simple. He’s a full time player, albeit likely an aging and diminished one, and for once, the Red Sox did something for Kevin Youkilis not necessarily in their own team’s short term interests.
That opens Boston’s front office to criticism but I think it’s good policy to do right by people. In the long term, prospective employees recognize such things. Youkilis had earned a longer leash but declining health, a young star and a manager who seemed not to bother getting to know Youkilis or appreciate his personal history conspired to shorten it. To their great credit, yesterday the Red Sox set Youkilis free altogether.