The traveling Greek God of Walks.
Sunday afternoon, the Boston Red Sox sent Kevin Youkilis to Chicago’s south side. Drafted, crafted and debuted as a Red Sox player, Youkilis now joins only the second team of his career.
His numbers this season have taken a precipitous decline with injuries, but as recently as 2011, Youk’ had a 127 wRC+ and 3.7 WAR while playing primarily third base. In short: For a White Sox team hurting for third base production, this trade could turn into a major fleecing for the south siders.
Let’s see how.
First, it is important to dispel the myth of trade winners and losers. Though I love the those visual trade trees that track WAR produced from players acquired and lost, we must recognize there are mitigating factors in every trade — the constraints of budget (which result in salary dumps), the constraints of roster spots (which result in a lot of smaller trades for fringe players) and the constraints of playing time (which precipitated this very trade). The Red Sox were not trading Youkilis because they simply needed Zach Stewart and/or Brent Lillibridge. No, they needed playing time for prospect Will Middlebrooks — he is the catalyst.
So in other words, the Red Sox have already “won” in the sense that they acquired uncontested playing time for their prospect while acquiring two more players (one of them usefulish now, the other with a chance to be even more useful in the near future) for a guy wasting away on the bench. Was Middlebrooks over Youkilis the right decision for Boston? Yeah, probably, but time can make a fool out of anyone.
But does this trade fit the White Sox needs? Yes. Yes* with an asterisk.
* Here’s why: The team currently sports a 95 FIP-minus, so they are not really hurting for Stewart’s pitching — which has been mostly in relief — right now. But, Stewart is only 25, he has some decent minor league numbers and the White Sox have a minor league system more barren than the sands of Arrakis. Letting Stewart go stings. Lillibridge is versatile, but quite replaceable. Sorry, Brent.
But, on the other hand, the White Sox have the lowest WAR — and the only negative WAR — for third basemen from 2007 through 2012. The White Sox are still looking for the heir to Joe Crede — and that is saying something in and of itself.
They had hoped one-time-actual-prospect Brent Morel could sate the third base chasm, but injuries and ineffectiveness have rendered him in a toxic state. The arrival of Youkilis will buy the White Sox more time with Morel. They will be able to leave him in Triple-A (after he gets back from his injury) and wait to see whether or not these latest developments have spelled doom for him. If he cannot recover even his former minor league powers, then that might be the end of his starting hopes. (Sorry, Brent.)
So that brings us full circle to Youk’. The Red Sox did not bring up Middlebrooks because they were feeling frisky; they brought him up because Youk’ was under-performing and injured. If those two trends continue, the White Sox will have a most unpleasant trade on their ledger. But if Youk’ — with the first regular playing time since the beginning of this month — can recapture his hitting just a smidgen, the White Sox may have a little surprise in store for him:
Youkilis is traveling from a park that suppresses right-handed home run power — Fenway Park — to the homerist park in the league for right-handed batters — U.S. Cellular Field. By losing the Green Monster, he loses about 26 points of doubles advantage, but he simultaneously gains 28 points of home run advantage.
The troubling issues about Youk’s numbers: No walks (8.5% BB-rate, down from 12.4% in his career), lots of strikeouts (23.6% K-rate in 2012, 18.3% in his career), and a second-consecutive low BABIP year (.288 BABIP after a .296 mark in 2011 — despite his career .327 BABIP).
A quick look at his FI wOBA numbers suggest he’s not far from his xBABIP-adjusted production, but there are still signs that he has under-performed with respect to his ability, most notably his plate discipline numbers.
His swinging strike rate (6.8%) is unchanged from his previous season — and matches his rate from 2007 and 2009. His contact rate is at a career low (80.7% according to BIS, 81% according to PITCHf/x), but it is not significantly lower than his career total (83.5%) — a difference of 2.8 swings per 100 pitches. If he gets 4 PA with an average of 5 pitches per PA, then a 2.8% difference in contact rate with a 39% swing rate amounts to a change of just 0.2 swings per game. So over 5 starts, he has just 1 fewer foul balls / balls in play.
Meanwhile, his O-Swing% is at its lowest level in the last five seasons and his F-Strike% is below its career norm (by a mere 2%).
In other words, even if Youkilis is not hitting the ball hard, there is little reason to believe he should not be walking and striking out at his career rates. If we slap a 13% BB-rate and 20% K-rate into Youk’s FI wOBA (using slash12 xBABIP), we get a .341 wOBA. That would be more than enough to make Youk a viable, productive third basemen for an increasingly overwhelming White Sox lineup.
Add in the dramatic change in home parks, and Youkilis is looking like a massive catch for the south side. White Sox fans are getting a treat: A career 129 wRC+ / .380 wOBA hitter — with only 165 bad PAs in 2012 — who possesses many signs of pending positive regression.
Sings the Chorus to the god: Welcome to Mount Olympus Field, oh wandering Youkilius. May your homers soar and your beard grow clear down to the ground.
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