Saying Goodbye to The Greek God of Walks

“Grady did not know that. Grady had ignored Paul’s prodding to scout the players his computer flushed out. Paul had said the scouts ought to go have a look at a college kid named Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis was a fat third baseman who couldn’t run, throw or field. What was the point of going to see that? (Because, Paul would be able to say three months later, Kevin Youkilis has the second highest on-base percentage in all of baseball, after Barry Bonds. To Paul, he’d become Euclis: the Greek god of walks.)

Good nicknames in baseball are somewhat of a rarity these days. One of my favorite sections of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is “nicknames.” Nicknames like “Earache,” “Firebrand” and “The Grey Eagle” resonated a lot more than today’s silly trends of shortening people’s names, or adding “Y” or “IE” to the end of them. One notable exception was Kevin Youkilis. Blessed in the above passage in Moneyball as “The Greek God of Walks” nearly a year before his major league debut, the baseball world sat up and took notice of a previously anonymous player before his major league debut. No pressure. While that might not seem like much of an achievement in today’s prospect- and media-saturated world, things were quite a bit different back in 2003. Yesterday, it was reported that the Ohio native had retired. Throughout his career, he served as the perfect example for several well-worn baseball lessons.

Scouting Counts
As mentioned, Youkilis was an eighth-round pick. He was on the fringes, you might say (and had the Fringe Five been a thing back in 2002, I’d like to think that Carson would have tabbed Youkilis frequently). Players from late rounds make the majors routinely, so that might not sound that impressive. Especially when they’re college hitters, right? Well, sure. But how many of them actually go on to fruitful careers? I was curious myself, so I enlisted our resident data Obi-Wan, Jeff Zimmerman. And what Jeff dug up is pretty damn interesting, I think. From the 2001 to 2012 drafts, there are just 20 who have surpassed 20 WAR for their career (Ryan Howard is right on the cusp, but at this point he’s as good a bet to decrease his career total as he is increase it). To wit:

College Drafted Position Players, 2001-2012 Draft, 20+ Career WAR
Mark Teixeira 1st (5th) 7129 0.273 0.364 0.516 41.5
Evan Longoria 1st (3rd) 4119 0.271 0.351 0.494 39.5
Dustin Pedroia 2nd 5157 0.299 0.364 0.444 38.8
Ryan Zimmerman 1st (4th) 5183 0.286 0.352 0.476 35.3
Ben Zobrist 6th 4478 0.264 0.353 0.429 34.8
Ian Kinsler 17th 5517 0.273 0.342 0.449 34.5
Curtis Granderson 3rd 5698 0.257 0.337 0.477 34.1
Troy Tulowitzki 1st (7th) 4064 0.299 0.373 0.517 34.0
Ryan Braun 1st (5th) 4687 0.306 0.368 0.550 33.1
Hunter Pence 2nd 5182 0.284 0.338 0.472 29.2
Kevin Youkilis 8th 4436 0.281 0.382 0.478 28.4
Jacoby Ellsbury 1st (23rd) 3839 0.293 0.344 0.435 27.3
Alex Gordon 1st (2nd) 4396 0.268 0.345 0.435 26.8
Nick Swisher 1st (16th) 6048 0.251 0.352 0.453 26.0
Buster Posey 1st (5th) 2455 0.308 0.374 0.487 23.5
Chase Headley 2nd 3944 0.265 0.347 0.409 23.3
Dan Uggla 11th 5368 0.243 0.337 0.451 22.8
Michael Bourn 4th 4428 0.269 0.330 0.364 21.8
Brett Gardner 3rd 2864 0.265 0.341 0.390 21.0
Andre Ethier 2nd 4916 0.285 0.358 0.462 20.6

Impressive, but there’s a whole lot of bonus babies on that list. Let’s streamline it a bit.

College Drafted Position Players, 8th round or later, 2001-2012 Draft, 20+ Career WAR
Ian Kinsler 17th 5517 0.273 0.342 0.449 34.5
Kevin Youkilis 8th 4436 0.281 0.382 0.478 28.4
Dan Uggla 11th 5368 0.243 0.337 0.451 22.8

Youkilis was a lottery ticket, and the Red Sox hit big. He basically has two peers, and both of them were middle infielders, who are generally in shorter supply than corner types.

OBP is life, life is OBP ($1, Sheehan)
There was a reason Youkilis broke through. If you sort the above tables for on-base percentage, you’ll notice that Youkilis topped both. He had put out the notice early on that this would be a trend. In his professional debut back in 2001, Youkilis posted a .504 on-base percentage. As in, he reached base more frequently than he made outs. In the next season, he “only” posted a .462 OBP when he got a crack at Double-A. If you’re wondering why Billy Beane was salivating over him, well, now you know. And salivating he was:

Billy’s thoughts linger on Youkilis. He imagines, fairly accurately as it turns out, the next words he’ll hear from the Red Sox. They’ll know of course that it was he, and not Omar, who has dropped the stink bomb of Youkilis. They’ll know because he, and no one else, has tried to get Youkilis from them in the past. They’ll know, also, because the Red Sox assistant GM, Theo Epstein, talks to Billy Beane as often as he can. … The Boston Red Sox are moments away from joining Billy Beane in his crusade to emancipate fat guys who don’t make outs.

And emancipate him, they would. Not in time to contribute to the postseason version of “The Idiots” — OK, he did get two at-bats in the ALDS — but he was around for the regular season, and chipped in with a .367 OBP in 248 plate appearances. That only tied for ninth place on that epic Red Sox team, but in short order Youkilis would ascend to the top of the lists. Of the 119 men who have tallied at least 1,500 plate appearances in a Red Sox uniform, Youkilis’ .388 OBP ranks 12th, barely edging out David Ortiz, who clocks in at .387. That’s a little misleading though, as most of those players are relics. Since 1980, there are seven Red Sox players to post a .380 or better OBP. In order, they are: Wade Boggs, Manny Ramirez, Mo Vaughn, Youkilis, Ortiz, Dwight Evans and Mike Stanley. That is what’s known as select company.

It’s not just the annals of Yawkey Way where Youkilis pops up. Looking at the full seasons of Youkilis’ career, 2006-2012, his .385 OBP ranks 14th among 429 qualified hitters. That mark was better than David Wright, Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley, Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu, to name just a few. Youkilis embodied the old Bill Belichick saying “know your lane.” Youkilis did what he did well, and didn’t do the things he couldn’t do well. It was hard to get him to expand his zone, even when he was in the driver’s seat. According to @AceballStats, he never swung at a 3-0 pitch. That’s pretty hard to do, but Youkilis knew where his bread was buttered.

Along the way, he had a flair for the dramatic. Perhaps the biggest hit came in the first inning of Game Five of the 2007 American League Championship Series. Down three games to one, with CC Sabathia on the hill in Cleveland, things were looking pretty bleak for Boston. It’s true that Sabathia hadn’t pitched very well in the postseason up to that point, but with the Indians one win from the World Series, he was going to lock things down. Right? Well, Youkilis had other ideas. His rocket of a homer not only set the tone for the game, but it was the de facto death knell for the Tribe. They never held the lead again in the final three games, though they would keep things close until the seventh.

Sabathia would settle down and the Indians had scratched a run across on a Travis Hafner double-play grounder in the first to keep things close. It was 2-1 heading into the seventh, but then Dustin Pedroia opened the inning with a double and Youkilis lofted a triple to right-center in the next at-bat. The triple pushed Boston’s lead to 3-1 and sent Sabathia to the showers. Those two hits from Youkilis proved to be two of the three biggest for the game by WPA. From there, the Sox essentially laughed all the way to the pennant, and then to a second World Series triumph in four seasons.

Win the crowd, win your freedom
That ALCS wasn’t the only example of Youkilis winning the adulation of Red Sox nation, however. The rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox may have cooled recently now that the Yankees seem hell bent on doubling as a baseball nursing home, but when Youkilis made it to the Show, there was the Yankees, and there was everyone else. The third baseman would only be able to celebrate from the bench during the greatest comeback in the history of sports in 2004, but he would earn his Yankees-killing bonafides in subsequent seasons. From the Baseball-Reference Play Index:

Best Career OBP vs. New York Yankees, 1914-2014, min. 100 PA
Player From To PA HR BB% AVG OBP SLG
Ted Williams 1939 1960 1351 62 22.9% 0.345 0.495 0.608
Jody Reed 1987 1997 285 2 12.6% 0.357 0.448 0.477
Ferris Fain 1947 1955 673 10 21.8% 0.283 0.447 0.431
Mike Napoli 2006 2014 247 16 15.8% 0.330 0.441 0.640
Babe Ruth 1914 1919 194 12 13.9% 0.337 0.438 0.663
Ty Cobb 1914 1928 1201 17 10.7% 0.361 0.433 0.529
Johnny Bassler 1914 1927 418 1 16.0% 0.319 0.433 0.374
Kevin Youkilis 2004 2012 442 13 15.6% 0.300 0.432 0.483
Red Barnes 1927 1930 103 2 10.7% 0.356 0.431 0.489
Geronimo Berroa 1994 1999 244 14 15.2% 0.328 0.430 0.598
Al Wingo 1919 1928 240 1 17.1% 0.309 0.430 0.397
Bernie Carbo 1974 1978 144 7 20.1% 0.286 0.430 0.518
Chipper Jones 1997 2012 121 5 14.0% 0.340 0.430 0.544
Dan Pasqua 1988 1994 149 8 12.1% 0.349 0.430 0.620

Any time you find yourself on a list with Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Chipper Jones, you know you’ve done something right.

Pay Attention to the Aging Curves
Often, I look at the work that Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti did on aging curves and I say, “Yeah, but Victor Martinez is still awesome, and so is Aramis Ramirez. This aging curve stuff is for the birds.” Or something like that. But then I look at Youkilis’ career. Now, there is no doubt that injuries played a significant role in exacerbating Youkilis’ demise, but injuries generally play a role in everyone’s life. Any way you slice it, Youkilis’ performance at the plate dropped 48 percent in less than two years. That’s pretty steep, but it serves as a reminder that this is probably closer to normal than players like Martinez and Ramirez. In fact, a lot of players don’t even get the chance to sink as low as Youkilis did, because they weren’t good enough to begin with.

Kevin Youkilis did a lot of great things in his career. At the beginning, he served as the quintessential example of OBP is life. At the end, he served as a reminder of the depressing reality that it’s hard to buck aging curves. In between, he was an All-Star, a Gold Glover, a World Series champion and very nearly an MVP. He ended his major league career with the Yankees, but he’ll be remembered more as a Yankees tormenter than a Yankees contributor. He was dubbed The Greek God of Walks, and he delivered on that nickname and then some. Not bad for “a fat third baseman.”

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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9 years ago

I really like these career retrospectives that get published when someone retires, and doubly so when it’s a player so unique and awesome as Kevin Youkilis.