This time of year can be frustrating. We have games being played and after the long winter and the meaningless exhibitions of Spring Training, everyone is thrilled to have real games to discuss. However, while we have meaningful baseball action happening, the truth is most of the statistics complied to this point are highly suspect. Basically every reference to statistics from the young season needs to carry the caveat of small sample size. These games matter, though, so when a player, especially a veteran player looks terrible, determining whether or not the rough start is the result of a decline in skill can’t wait for the 300-400 plate appearances. This is the case with Kevin Youkilis.
Thus far Youkilis is hitting just .184/.238/.289. While he showed some life last night, hitting his first home run of the year, he also just struck out in all four at bats against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday. He has looked just about as bad as any player in the game to this point. Bobby Valentine’s comments were moronic, but concerns about Youkilis’ struggles are well-founded. Injuries and Youk’s hard-nosed, high-emotion style of play have taken a toll. At 33, Youkilis is getting close to an age where significant decline is the norm for Major League players. Questioning his desire and commitment is foolish, but at this point it is probably just as foolish not question his ability to be a productive everyday player.
I am definitely concerned about Youkilis, and though he is almost certainly not going to be this bad all year I think there is a good chance that he is not going to be an above average player regularly anymore. Underneath that grotesque batting line, many of the skills that make Youk the elite hitter that he has been are slipping. Focusing on the statistics that are closest to stabilizing makes that more clear.
Only one statistic for hitters stabilizes anywhere near the 42 plate appearances Youk has thus far. That is swing %, and Youkilis is still swinging at the rate he always has, around 39%. The next stat to stabilize is contact rate, which typically becomes reliable at 100 PA, which is still more than two times what we have seen thus far. Youk is making a great deal less contact overall as well. Thus far, he is connecting 7.4% less often than his career 83.5% rate, a very troubling sign.
All of that doesn’t tell us much though. After all, he could be swinging and missing a great deal more or he could also be making poor contact when he does connect. He is doing both, unfortunately, with a 9% swinging strike rate against a 6.2% career average and an astronomical 69.2% ground ball rate, up from 35.4%. It will take at least four times as many plate appearances for those stats to stabilize, but this level of variation is a very bad early indicator.
The drop in his contact rate is may be an issue but it is not the most worrying sign. By the time he has complied 100 plate appearances, it will probably have rebounded some. Even with a declining contact rate, a hitter with Youk’s plate discipline can still be well above average. The other rates are starting to become scary though. At this point, if Youk returned to his career norms for his next 120 plate appearances these rates would still be at his worst single season levels ever at the point where we can start to take them seriously. For his swinging strike rate to return to normal levels, he would need to swing and miss almost half as much as he is now for the next month. That is possible, but unlikely.
As problematic as the extra swinging strikes might be, the truly scary trend is his groundball rate. Youkilis has been hitting more ground balls every year for the past four years. From 2006-2008 he averaged 33% grounders. By the end of last season, that rate had climbed to 41.8%. While some warnings about classification errors are appropriate here, Youk’s ground ball rates have generally gone up at the expense of line drives. Early season results in these two areas are downright grim. Youk has hit just 13% line drives and 69.6% ground balls. Neither one of these rates is particularly close to stabilizing, as line drive rate stabilize at 150 plate appearances and ground ball rates stabilize at 200, but given just how extreme they are it is fairly likely that something has changed.
That is not to say there is no hope. These are small samples and even though these types of statistics tend to be more relevant in smaller sampling than things like OBP and slugging percentage they still fluctuate quite a bit. Youk had surgery in the off-season and that will prevent a player from getting the preparation they are used to coming into Spring Training. Youkilis has complex hitting mechanics and it would not be surprising to see him turn things around completely, but these numbers worry me much more than his more commonly cited stats. Seeing the problem in graphic form really brings it home.
*note- this does not include results from the April 18 game against Texas
Thinking about the possibility that he will rebound, I decided to look at the same numbers for a dramatic rebound case that Red Sox fans are very familiar with. Comparing numbers from Youk’s slow start this season to David Ortiz’s horrible April performance in 2010 does offer some hope and some reason for concern. In April of 2010, Ortiz was coming off of his worst season since becoming an everyday player in 2003 and he began the season by hitting .143/.238/.286 in April. Many of the problems Youk is struggling with also plagued Ortiz during that time.
Like Youk now, Ortiz had a higher than normal ground ball rate and lower line drive and contact rates rate. The rise in his ground ball rate was nowhere near as extreme as Youk’s, however. Previously, Ortiz had averaged 34.6% ground balls, but in April 2010 he was hitting 45.7%. For Youk, the problem is much worse. He has 35.4% ground balls in his career. As I said before that number has been rising, but even last year he hit just 41.8%. His current 69.2% is almost double his career rate and ranks third in baseball right now. Just ahead of him are two hitters, Russell Martin and Drew Stubbs, who are normally much more ground ball prone. Martin has been over 15% more likely to hit a ground ball that Youkilis in his career, Stubbs has been 10%. Youkilis has hit more ground balls (18) in 42 plate appearances thn Ortiz hit in his 58 trips to the box in April 2010.
Though Ortiz was striking out well above his normal levels that month, his swinging strike rate was only around 1% higher then his career norm. Since 2003, he had swung and missed at 9.3% and that April he was missing 10.4%. Despite his incredible rebound, Ortiz did not really improve on that swinging strike rate at all in 2011, finish with 10.2% swinging strikes for the season. His rate dropped in 2011, thanks to his new approach at the plate. Youkilis has been missing 2.8% more often and if that stays the same, he will be in trouble. David Ortiz has the power to be productive swinging and missing over 10% of the time, but Youk might not, especially if he is hitting more ground balls.
It would be wrong to pronounce Youkilis finished right now, and I am not advocating for taking him out of the line. In fact, that would be the worst thing Bobby Valentine could do at this point. Even factoring in these trends, Zips projection system still sees Youkilis producing a wOBA of .358, more than 50 points higher than Nick Punto. While that is a huge step back for a player who has been as good as Youk, it is still around 25% better than the current league average. If the issues discussed here are just due to a mechanical issue they can be corrected and we will see that as the numbers regress toward normal. If they only regress a small amount in Youk’s next 25-30 games, if, the Red Sox could have significant problem at third base. Youk needs to keep playing to correct these issues or at least to show that they are not improving. While hitting his first home run of the year last night was certainly a great sign, it does alleviate the need to watch these rates as he goes forward. They may be the early signs of a serious decline.