Kevin Youkilis has made quite the ascension during his professional career. A mildly regarded prospect coming out of the University of Cincinnati, Youkilis saw 242 other players taken ahead of him before the Boston Red Sox came calling in the 8th round of the 2001 amateur draft. The former Bearcat quickly became known for possessing otherworldly plate discipline, posting a .512 OBP during his New York-Penn League debut in the summer of ’01. Despite that eye and the subsequent “Greek Good of Walks” nickname that came with it, Youkilis had his fair share of detractors: be it his conditioning, advanced age or lack of thump while playing a power position, many questioned his ability to become more than a complementary player at the major league level.
The career .300/.444/.441 minor league hitter split the 2004 and 2005 seasons between Boston and Pawtucket before finally getting the opportunity at everyday playing time in the big leagues in 2006, at the age of 27. The ever-judicious Youkilis drew walks at a 13.8% clip during the ’06 season, posting a .357 wOBA and a .279/.381/.429 line. Youk followed that up with a .373 wOBA in 2007, improving to the tune of .288/.390/.453 while posting a 12.7 BB%. By this point, the scouting reports on Youkilis looked pretty accurate: He would draw plenty of walks and contrbute to a quality offensive attack, but the chances of him ever anchoring a lineup seemed remote.
Then came Youkilis’ 2008 campaign. The Greek God of Walks suddenly appeared to acquire the strength of Zeus, pummeling the baseball and popping as many home runs in ’08 (29) as he had in the prior two seasons combined. After posting a tame .149 ISO in 2006 and a slightly better mark of .165 in 2007, the 29 year-old raised that figure to .257 in 2008. Youkils’ ISO tied newly-minted Ray Pat Burrell for the 12th-highest mark among all qualified batters, and Youk’s .402 wOBA also ranked 12th, sandwiched between Hanley Ramirez and David Wright. While the 6-1, 220 pounder is still fairly patient (with a 10.3 BB% in ’08), he has become increasingly aggressive over the course of his major league career:
2006: 15.1 O-Swing%, 55.7 Z-Swing%, 36.7 Swing%
2007: 17.4 O-Swing%, 58.6 Z-Swing%, 39.5 Swing%
2008: 22.3 O-Swing%, 59.9 Z-Swing%, 42.4 Swing%
Keep in mind that we’re speaking in relative terms here: the average O-Swing% has been around 25% over the past two seasons, so Youkilis still goes fishing outside of the strike zone less than most. But, Youkilis has gone from uber-patient to more willing to go after an offering that he likes, be it in or out of the zone. Whether this trend is related to his increase in power is debatable, but perhaps he’s more apt to attack a fat pitch or even a hittable pitch a little off the plate these days. Youk’s plate discipline numbers, lowered walk rate and power increase suggest that he has traded some free passes for some extra-base hits.
Following his monster ’08 campaign, Youkilis has apparently cashed in: the lukewarm prospect who signed for just $12,000 has reportedly inked a four-year, $40 million extension with an option for the 2013 season. Youkilis had two years of arbitration eligibility left, so the deal buys out those two seasons as well as two years of free agency. How does that deal stack up for the Sox?
Let’s assume that Youkilis keeps some, but not all of the offensive gains he made this past season. Marcel’s 2009 projection looks appropriate: a .287/.377/.477 line with a .370 wOBA. Adding up Youkilis’ offensive value (about +18 runs), defensive prowess (he’s been about a +6 run defender when you weigh his last three seasons) and then account for his positional adjustment and the replacement level baseline, Youkilis projects to be worth about 3.2 wins in 2009.
An arbitration-eligible player tends to earn about 40% of his fair market value during his first season of eligibility, 60% the second and 80% in his final year. Here’s how much Youkilis (in his second year of arbitration eligibility) projects to be worth using a $4.5 million/WAR rate, if we assume his performance stays pretty static. Let’s assume he stays as a 3.2 WAR performer during his age 30 and 31 seasons, and then declines 5% in each of 2011 (age 32) and 2012 (age 33).
2009 (60% of fair market value): $8.64M ($14.4M free agent value multiplied by .6)
2010 (80% of fair market value): $11.5M ($14.4M multiplied by .8)
2011 (FA; full value, 3 WAR): $13.5M
2012 (FA; full value, 2.9 WAR): $13.05M
Even if we assume that Youkilis gives back some of his power, sticks at first base and declines somewhat during the last two years of the pact, this deal looks like a winner for the Red Sox.
The terms of the contract might actually be more favorable still: a couple of readers have pointed out that Youkilis is likely to shift across the diamond to third base to make room for Lars Anderson. Youk has been a very solid defender at third in slightly less than 1,100 innings. Even if one is pessimistic and feels that he’ll be just an average defender at the hot corner from 2010-2012, Youkilis will increase his value to Boston if he shifts up the defensive spectrum:
2009 (60% of fair market value, 3.2 WAR): $8.64M ($14.4M free agent value multiplied by .6)
2010: (80% of fair market value, at 3B, 4.05 WAR): $14.6M ($18.2M free agent value multiplied by .8)
2011: (FA; full value, at 3B, 3.8 WAR): $17.1M
2012: (FA; full value, at 3B, 3.65 WAR): $16.4M
If Youkilis can play an average third base from 2010-2012, then this deal will give the Sox $16.75M in surplus value (production minus his salary of $40M) instead of $6.7M at first base.
Kevin Youkilis may be acclaimed for his ability to work the count, but he has gradually become more willing to take the bat off of his shoulder and has seen his power production increase each season of his big league career. Perhaps he won’t outslug Mark Teixeira again next season, but Youkilis has proven himself to be far more than just a spare part in the big leagues.