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Does the Kevin Youkilis Trade Represent a New Organizational Philosophy?

Youkilis Is gone, has he taken the walks with him?  (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Youkilis Is gone, has he taken the walks with him? (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
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Kevin Youkilis is gone and I am not coping with this particularly well. Apparently, I am chanting "Youk" in my sleep. Sometimes I find myself standing with my feet usually close together and pointed inward. Just yesterday, I savagely destroyed my Brita pitcher just to fill the void of senseless destruction left in his absence. It’s been rough. Mostly, I just can’t stop thinking about Kevin Youkilis as a player and what his departure might mean to the Red Sox. I assuaged my fears about his replacement already, but I can’t help but wonder if the trade has greater significance than just marking the end of a beloved player’s time with the team.

If you look at the current roster, you won’t find many players left like Youk. Ok, there isn’t anyone in baseball like Kevin Youkilis. With that bizarre stance and incredible batting eye, Youkilis was one of a kind. However, it was not that long ago that the Red Sox specialized in players with a certain skill set that Youk could have been the poster boy for. From star players like J.D. Drew, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and Jason Bay to role players to role players like Eric Hinske, George Kottaras, Jed Lowrie and Jeff Bailey, the Boston Red Sox signed, traded for, developed and promoted players who drew a lot of walks- players like Kevin Youkilis, the so called Greek God of Walks.

In 2007, when the Boston Red Sox won 96 games, the American League East and the World Series, the team led all of baseball in walk rate, drawing free passes in 10.7% of their plate appearances. Kevin Youkilis was fifth on that time in walk rate among players with at least 500 plate appearances. A man who was lionized for his walk rate since the minors was just fifth on that team. He was fourth among current Red Sox players with at least 100 plate appearances prior to his trade despite posting the worst walk rate of his career and having fallen to near league average. Something has changed for the Boston Red Sox.

The 2012 Boston Red Sox currently rank 11th in the AL in walk rate and 23rd overall. This is a shocking turn of events for a team that lead the game in walks in 2007 and 2008 and finished second in 2009 (1st in the AL). Though the departure of Kevin Youkilis is the perfect symbol for what could be a change in the team’s core philosophy, the shift must have began earlier. In 2010, the team dropped to third in the AL in walk rate, behind the two teams above them in the AL East standings, the Yankees and the Rays and things stayed that way in 2011.

If falling behind the Yankees and Rays and a few National League teams was the only symptom, this trend would be easy to dismiss. After all, it isn’t easy to stay on top. However, beginning in 2010, the Red Sox also began to take interest in a different type of player. Oddly enough, the poster child for this new brand of hitter was another third baseman, Adrian Beltre. Signed to a one year deal, the free swinging Beltre was the team’s most valuable player in 2010 by wins above replacement. While Boston did not re-sign Beltre, his stellar 2010 season may have helped cement the team’s belief in more free swinging players.

So, when it came time to move Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox were not looking for the next Youkilis. In fact, they may be looking for the next Beltre. They have replaced Youk at third with Will Middlbrooks, who has just a 4.8% walk rate thus far, but who is also destroying baseballs with a .245 Isolated Power rate and a .380 batting average on balls in play. It is not uncommon for enthusiastic Middlebrook fans to compare the promising youngster to Beltre. Additionally the Red Sox received Brent Lillibridge, who has a 7.0% walk rate in over 500 plate appearances, in return for Youk. Rather than selecting some obscure B prospect with plus patience, Boston took a flyer on a player who is more likely to succeed with contact and power than patience.

I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of a small handful of transactions, but I see a trend developing that would have been unimaginable just four or five years ago. To a basically insignificant degree, the data supports this theory. Data care of Fangraph's custom leaderboards


As I said, that’s basically insignificant, so maybe there is nothing going on here. This chart doesn’t include every player acquired during the past two years, but it does include all of the players to amass at least 200 PA and those players acquired this season, who could still reach that mark. Still, Adrian Gonzalez (who is currently walking at a below average rate), Nick Punto and Kelly Shoppach are the only players acquired recently with career walk rates above league average. Looking at players who were acquired to play full time, a slightly stronger trendline appears.


Still, it would be wrong to draw too much of a conclusion from such limited data. Remove Adrian Gonzalez and this trend would appear extremely significant, but remove Carl Crawford and Mike Aviles and it is hardly a trend at all.

Even if it was clear that the Red Sox were move away from high walk percentage players, would it matter? The Red Sox are still second in baseball in runs scored (behind the Texas Rangers) and fourth in on base percentage. They are achieving the same basic goal (getting on base, scoring runs) with a different process. The 2012 Boston Red Sox are more contact dependent and that might scare some people, since batting average on balls in play is known to be unstable. However, the Red Sox play in a contact friendly park and it is possible that they have better information on which player can maintain an elevated BABIP. The Red Sox also rank high in power related metrics like ISO and slugging percentage, so their success in scoring runs is not so much a product of contact, but a product of hard contact.

It is possible that the movement away from the Kevin Youkilis model and to the Will Middlebrooks one is just a coincidence. I highly doubt that the Red Sox front office just decided that walks were boring and overrated and began ignoring players who walk a lot. It isn’t as if the Red Sox are shopping David Ortiz or Daniel Nava because they walk too much.It may just be that the Aviles-types have been available and priced right while more patient free agents and trade targets have grown too expensive or rare. Middlebrooks has done everything you could ask a prospect to do to earn his way to a major league roster spot while more patient players like Che-Hsuan Lin, Ryan Kalish and Alex Hassan have suffered setbacks and been forced onto a longer road.

However, it could be more than that. I think this possible trend is worth watching if you are a statistically inclined Red Sox fan. Seamheads like me can tend to over-hype the importance of walks but you don’t have to look any further than the 2012 Rays or the 2012 Athletics to see that there is no one-to-one connection between walking and scoring runs. If the Red Sox are actually starting to favor players who walk less, that could an important sign that we are behind the curve in understanding how runs are produced, especially if the team remains in the top of the league in runs scored every year.

Kevin Youkilis is gone. Maybe this means the days of the Red Sox walking circles around the league are gone as well. Maybe it is just a sad thing that has happen.

Now, you will have to excuse me while I shave my head and work on growing a goatee.