Kevin Youkilis: Forgotten Man

The Red Sox led all of baseball in runs scored last year, edging out the Yankees by 7 runs. They did that with big contributions from Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez, and almost without contributions from right and left field. There are reasons to feel good about the Red Sox offense coming into the season and probably you could dig up some to feel less good if you really wanted to. One of the unsung sort of forgotten players in all of this 'can Jacoby repeat' and 'did Delta accidentally ship the real Carl Crawford to Salt Lake City' stuff is Kevin Youkilis.

Calling last year a lost year for Youkilis is too strong. Youk had 517 PAs over the year and played in 120 games. Still, he was hardly himself, hitting .258/.373/.459 on the year. That's not half bad of course, but compared to the .308/.404/.560 that he hit between 2008 and 2010, it was a step backwards. Still, an OPS+ of 123 (that's an OPS 23% above league average) isn't bad for a guy who's innards are falling out.

That wasn't the only thing that bothered Youkilis though. In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus's injury database, Youk suffered twelve separate injuries during the 2011 season. There were also four recurrence of those injuries, including the injury that ultimately did in his season, the sports hernia which required surgery.

Is Kevin Youkilis in decline? Is he too injury prone to stay at third base? What will the Red Sox do with his contract?

Youkilis is now entering his age 33 season and his contract expires at the end of this season. The Red Sox hold a $13 million option for his 2013 season with a $1 million buy-out, or in other words, it'll cost the Sox $12 million to keep him around for the 2013 season. A year ago when Youkilis was crushing the ball, that would have been an easy call. You pick up the option and give Youk all the jelly beans in the jar on your desk too. Now, the call is a bit tougher.

There are several issues here and the contract situation can't be solved until we know how his 2012 season played out, so we'll leave that be for now. As to the injury and decline issue, it's hard to say. Youk is at a time where age can start to rear it's ugly head. As we know, average hitters peak, that is to say they enjoy their very best seasons, at around age 27 or 28. Youkilis is four or five years beyond that. But we also know that good hitters peak later in their careers, and that has definitely been the case for Youk. This graph shows the VORP he accumulated between 2004 and 2011:

Screen_shot_2012-03-27_at_12

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see a downward trend happening there. That trend coinciding with his age 31 and 32 seasons is consistent with normal player aging. But as I mentioned above, Youkilis isn't exactly a normal player. Last year, even though he played most of the games and got to the plate a fair bit, he was beat up most of the time. That's not to excuse a down year (though for a down year it was a pretty good one) but to say that maybe the trend line is providing a more certain answer than it should be.

When most players get to Youk's age and start to miss more and more games with various injuries, their performance falls off, as you'd think it would. Age is brutal and gets all players (and indeed all of us as well) in the end, whether by sapping skills directly or by destroying the ability to see the field in the first place. So when the projection systems look at Youkilis they see an aging player with a recent history of injuries.

Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system sees a repeat of last season for Youk, with 537 PAs (517 last year), and a line of .284/.382/.486 (.258/.373/.459 last season). The Marcel projection system, now hosted on Fan Graphs, sees 502 PAs and a line of .273/.373/.481. It isn't surprising that, in the aggregate, players don't improve or often return to previous levels of performance. That isn't wrong. But we're not talking about a cross section of players, we're talking about one specific player.

So what can we expect out of Kevin Youkilis this year? Even before last season and his many injuries, Youk was never the healthiest of players. In 2010 he had seven different entries in BP's injury database including the one that ended his season, the tendon of his thumb which was ripped off (good morning!). In 2009 he wasn't the picture of good health either with seven different ailments including back, abdomen, ankle, and leg injuries.

The sad truth is Youkilis is probably coming apart, with years of baseball finally taking their toll. If he can remain healthy, the chances he finds his stroke and pushes his batting line back towards his 2008-2010 peak are good. To get the results at the plate that Kevin Youkilis has over the past two seasons with the number of injuries he's dealt with, well, you have to be a pretty darn good hitter. I don't think that's changed, at least not drastically. The issue with Youk is and will continue to be injuries. If he can stay healthy, he can be a force in the middle of the Red Sox lineup. If not, he's going to be in and out of the lineup, a guy who can still provide OBP and occasional pop, but isn't anything to construct an offense around.

So, the question seems to be, can Youk stay healthy this year? Only your bookie knows for sure, but if spring training is any indicator, well, I'll let Corey Dawkins and Stephani Bee of Baseball Prospectus give you the update:

Kevin Youkilis was not able to make the Red Sox’ bus trip because of a stiff back. He should return shortly.

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