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Youk and a Yo-Yo: A Look at Kevin Youkilis’ Odd Season

With Kevin Youkilis taking his familiar place on the disabled list, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what has been a bit of a strange season for him, and what better way to do that than to badger you with graphs?

The season started rather ominously as Youkilis struggled to keep his batting average above .200 through March and April and yet was still looking a lot like the walk-machine we’ve all grown used to. Much was made of an uncharacteristically low BABIP to begin the season that left his triple-slash at .218/.392/.487 headed into May. He was still hitting for power, but simply wasn’t getting much in the way of lucky bounces for a guy that has carried a pretty robust .330 BABIP on his career. With a BABIP rise and a concomitant batting average lift, his first half line represented classic Youkilis home cookin’ at .285/.399/.512.

But then there’s the five weeks after the All-Star break where Youkilis has been really scrapping. His post-break line is currently .210/.319/.390 and whereas his early season struggles still saw him hitting for power and getting on base, Youkilis is walking less, striking out more and hitting for little power. Yes, the sample is only 100 at-bats so we take this all with the proverbial salt grain, but as you head into the stretch run, if you’re a Youkilis owner, you might be wondering just what in the world is going on.

Taking his season on the whole, he is still very much in line with career averages for walks and K’s. His walk rate the last three seasons are all a tick above 13% and his current K% is 18.8% which is a hair above his career 18% average. His OBP, SLG, and ISO, while noting a slight drop, are all pretty close to what we’ve been used to the last several seasons (and that ISO is in line with his .205 career ISO):

Getting past the batting average, it makes you realize that Kevin Youkilis is practically recession proof. But there are a few other tidbits worth pointing out about his 2011 season worth watching.

Over the last few seasons, Youkilis is becoming much more of a ground ball hitter, with his GB% at a career high and his FB% at a career low. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does have the potential to impact his power production:

This may be in part due to a change in approach that pitchers are taking with him. Over the last five years, Youkilis is seeing fewer pitches inside the strike zone and he’s seeing fewer fastballs and more sliders. His Zone% follows:

Not only is he seeing fewer balls down broadway, but pitchers are tweaking their approach in repertoire, exemplified most in 2011. The percentage of fastballs thrown to Youkilis dropped the most after the 2007 season where it was about 63% down to it’s current 56.5% and the number of sliders is up marginally this year versus the last few. But looking at 2011 splits, there’s a more dramatic shift post-break in the pitches he’s seeing:

What’s more, relative to pitch type values, he’s having less success with the fastball than he has on his career (Career 1.57 wFB/C vs. 1.16 in 2011) but he’s having just a miserable time with sliders (Career -.27 wSL/C vs. -1.73 in 2011). It may be that pitchers are using that fact to their advantage, increasing their use of sliders as the season progresses.

I have read where he’s swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, suggesting that he’s losing his keen eye. While his O-Swing% is up, it trends right along with league average O-Swing%, it’s still well below league average, and if he was losing his eye at the dish, we’d surely see some kind of drop in his BB%, which we aren’t. Below is the league average O-Swing% along with Youkilis’:

Last chart for you – the statistic that really jumped out to me are his home/road splits. Historically, Youkilis has always hit better at Fenway than he has on the road, but this year, his production on the road has been dismal:

It’s worth pointing out that Youkilis is merely book-ending his season with terrible luck on batted balls as his April BABIP was .250 and in August, it’s .219. So I’d expect that things will improve once he returns from the disabled list. Although, September is not historically one of his better months but that could certainly be wrapped up in the fact that by this time in the season, Youkilis typically has so many bumps and bruises that he’s being held together with duct tape.

2011 has certainly been a roller coaster for fantasy owners, but you would boast a pretty fine squad to be in a situation where you wouldn’t want to keep Youkilis looking ahead to 2012. It will be particularly interesting to see if pitchers continue to increase their use of sliders to Youkilis and if he continues to put the ball on the ground more often. He is undoubtedly one of the better third base options in fantasy baseball, but between aging, injuries, and making adjustments, he will have to continue to work to stay there.