Mike Trout? Miguel Cabrera? Please. Sure, numbers and metrics matter (at least the ones I selectively use to make my case depending on what I choose to argue beforehand). But if want a player who has actually made the difference in his team’s (probably) successful playoff run, there is only one choice for the 2012 American League’s Most Valuable Player: Kevin Youkilis.
Okay, I’ll admit it: the title and first paragraph are just meant to grab attention. I do not really think that Youkilis should be the 2012 AL MVP. However, Youkilis has had a big impact on the White Sox since being coming over from Boston at the end of June. If the current standings hold (White Sox three games ahead of the Tigers), one could reasonably argue that Youkilis has been the difference the American League Central championship this year.
Brent Morel was supposed to be the White Sox’ third baseman this season. Sure, he was mostly a terrible hitter in 2011, but over the last month of that season, went on a Cistulli-baffling tear that may have convinced the White Sox to give him another chance. The kids were going to play. Morel got 125 plate appearances that made his terrible 2011 (.245/.287/.366, 72 wRC+) look down right appealing: .177/.225/.195, 11 wRC+. It is unlikely that Morel was or is that horrible, and the back strain that ended up sending him to the disabled list may have had something to do with it. However, given his prior performances in both the majors and minors, it was hardly encouraging.
Either way, the White Sox decided they could not abide Morel’s performance, and near the end of May signed Orlando Hudson, who had been released by the Padres. Hudson had never played third base in the majors, but the White Sox were pretty desperate. Hudson’s bat had been dropping off the last few years, but it looked completely dead the first few months of the season for the Padres (.211/.260/.317, 59 wRC+). It was a small sample, but the Padres understandably decided there was no point to waiting around for Hudson to rebound while they were rebuilding. Moving away from the Padres’ park did not help Hudson much, however, as he was only barely better than Morel: .182/.256/.281 with a 39 wRC+ for the White Sox while playing mostly third base.
We do not reiterate to go over the whole Youkilis-in-Boston saga. The White Sox basically got him for a back of the rotation arm/middle reliver (Zach Stewart) and a utility player (Brent Lillibridge). The Red Sox picked up a sizable chunk of the rest of Youkilis’ 2012 salary, too. Youkilis has been very good, for the White Sox. Since coming to the South Side, Youkilis has hit .234/.360/.460 (121 wRC+) and put up 1.4 WAR. While he did look mostly bad in his time with the Red Sox this year, if you look at Youkilis’ hitting numbers with the White Sox this year, they look very similar to those he put up in 2011 in Boston. In fact, in 2012 compared to 2011, Youkilis is actually walking more and striking out less while hitting for more power (his BABIP is down). This is not to get into the Red Sox’ side of things, but simply to note that while there were some troubling signs, there was also plenty of reasons for the White Sox to have confidence in Youkilis’ ability to play at something like his 2011 performance.
So just how more valuable has Youkilis been than the White Sox’ alternatives? Obviously, it doesn’t simply work to “add up the WARs” of Hudson and Morel, and subtract that from Youkilis’ WAR in his time with the White Sox (although that adds up to about three wins, which would have been convenient for making the case that the Youkilis trade was the key to Chicago’s divisional title). We have to look at what Hudson and/or Morel would likely have done had they played the rest of the season compared to Youkilis.
Normally I would use ZiPS RoS projections for this, but this late in the season, the listed lines do some funny things. So I will use Oliver true talent projection for 2012. We already have Youkilis .356 wOBA for the White Sox, we don’t need his true talent for this hypothetical exercise — that’s playing time he has already received. It’s Morel and Hudson that are the counter-factual cases here (and yes, I know that Hudson played some after the Youkilis trade, this is not meant to be that precise). Oliver has Morel’s true talent wOBA as .278. Now, Morel may very well be better than Youkilis with the glove, but even over just half of a season, the difference between a .278 wOBA and a .356 is about two wins. Oliver has Hudson’s true tlaent wOBA at .311 — about a win over half of a season. And I doubt that Hudson is significantly better than Youkilis at third, at least over just half of a season. (I’ll spare you the details of Eduardo Escobar‘s Oliver projection).
This sort of counter-factual baseball history is fraught with problems: the uncertainty of projections, timing of events, other moves Chicago could have made, and so on. However, scoring more runs makes a team more likely to win. Having Youkilis on the team just for half of a season probably has given the White Sox at least one more win in the standings than they would have had with the otherwise. That may not seem like much, but that is actually a pretty big short-term upgrade compared to most mid-season trades. Sure, the White Sox are up by three games now, so Youkilis has not been the sole difference. Their lead also might get bigger in last few days of the season (it might also shrink). However, although it is clearly silly to suggest that Kevin Youkilis has been the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 2012, that trade does have a claim to being best short-term trade of the season.