|Kevin Youkilis' entire career has been built around
not making outs. (Getty Images)
Out percentage answers a clear question: What percentage of the time does a hitter make an out? That’s all. Outs are the sands of time in baseball. You know this. You get 27 of them in a nine-inning game. You will lose some of them by strikeout, some by groundout, some by flyout. You will lose two of them at a time in double plays. You will surrender some of them moving a teammate a single base or scoring them from third base. You will forfeit some outs trying to get an extra base for yourself.
Through the years, it has always been the role of baseball analysts to tell us something about a hitter’s personality. This player is a clutch hitter, meaning he hits better when the situation demands it. This player is not a clutch hitter, meaning he shrinks when the team needs a hit most. This player is a run producer, meaning he has a distinct ability to score the runners already on base. This player is a table setter, meaning he has distinct ability to be one of those runners on base when the run producers come up. This player is a great teammate, meaning he is skilled at bunting and hitting behind runners and doing those “little things that don’t show up in the box score.” And so on. And so on.
And I’m not here today to argue with those labels and clichés. I’m just saying that there’s something about out percentage that cuts through all that, something base and blatant and beyond banality*. I’m just saying that when you talk about something as simple as how often you make an out there’s no tag to hide behind, no glory blanket to wrap up in, no well-timed hits to overvalue. What percentage of the time do you make an out? It’s simple and it’s naked.
*How about that series of Bs? My daughter had to do several alliteration poems for her class, and I’m still stuck on that.
And this bluntness is why I love Kevin Youkilis as a player.
His whole career, certainly as a hitter, has been built on one rule: Do not make outs.
Youkilis was not the kind of player who impressed anybody. This was true from the start. Out of high school in Cincinnati, he would say, two schools were willing to give him a chance: Butler and the hometown University of Cincinnati. UC was a terrible team at the time, and Youk recruited the school as much as the school recruited him (his hero Sandy Koufax went to UC and so did his dad). Youkilis couldn’t run, didn’t seem to have great power, wasn’t much of a fielder, he didn’t have a classic baseball body (to say the least) and he had this funky-looking crouch and swing that suggested uncertainty about the purpose of hitting. But people just did not understand that Youk had a plan. And he did not make outs.
He was a star at UC -- he hit .368 with some power and basically did not make outs half the time he came to the plate. The pro scouts yawned. He was not drafted after his junior season. He was taken in the eighth round in his senior season and signed for $12,000 -- much to the chagrin of Oakland A's GM Billy Beane who probably was ahead of the curve on the whole “don’t make outs” concept. Beane told Michael Lewis in Moneyball that even though the Red Sox would not trade Youkilis, Beane was sure that Boston did not realize or appreciate what they had.
What they had was a smart baseball player who was driven to be a major league baseball player no matter how many people told him he was wasting his time. The A’s management dubbed Youkilis “The Greek God of Walks” because he walked 73 times in 64 games his first year in the minors, then walked 93 times his second year and 104 times his third year. But, in some ways, looking at Youkilis’ walks underrated his motivation and zeal and talent. The guy did not make outs. He was hit by 21 pitches his second season in the minors and 18 more his third season. He did not ground into many double plays. He hit for a pretty high average -- the power would come later -- but Youkilis as much as any player of his time reduced the game of hitting to its simplest form. If he made an out, the pitcher won. If he did not make an out, he won. That’s it.
How can you not love this quote he gave Gordon Edes in 2006: “Fighting off pitching, fouling off pitches, laying off pitches, making it so the opposing pitcher can’t breathe, that’s my job.”
He got a bit of fame out of Moneyball -- fame that, from what I can tell, he disliked -- but it probably did help him get to the big leagues. Players like Youkilis who do not offer instant speed or power or superb defense at a key spot often wallow in the minors. But Moneyball made on-base percentage a little bit sexier, and Youkilis was called up in 2004 at age 25, in time to help the Red Sox won their first World Series in a billion-jillion-shmillion years. He went back to the minors in 2005 -- he had broken his toe in spring training -- and he was pretty good in 2006.
Here’s a great quote about Youkilis from that story Edes wrote, this from a “rival GM:” “He’s an interesting guy but he’s not a guy that I say, ‘Man, I wish we had him on our team.’” Which means that even by 2006, people did not realize just how good Youkilis would be over the next five or so years. His fate in life was to be underrated. In 2007, he won a Gold Glove as a first baseman -- his defense was a huge surprise -- and he was 10th in the league in out percentage. He made an out 62 percent of the time -- almost exactly the same percentage as much higher profile players, such as Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki.
In 2008, Youkilis was fifth in the league in out percentage (again, 62 percent). His power numbers jumped significantly and his batting average was .312 and so suddenly he became celebrated -- he finished third in the MVP voting. In 2009, he had the second-lowest out percentage in the American League behind the league MVP Joe Mauer. In 2010, Youkilis was hurt quite a lot so he did not have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. But in 435 plate appearances, he had the lowest out percentage in baseball.
Of course, Youkilis was a hero in Boston, and should be a hero forever. He was noticeable -- with that cool name, with that odd batting style, with the way his finger danced on the bat that dangled over his head. He was at the heart of two World Series championships in a city and region of people who wondered for decades if they would live to see one. He was edgy and irritating and a force of will who inspired loyalty in teammates and rage in opponents; he was as loved by hometown fans as he was despised on the road. He dedicated a lot of his time to helping kids and he quietly held to his faith and he played hard even as his body deteriorated.
And he did not make outs. This is the beautiful think about Youk. He has stayed true to that mission of fighting off pitches, fouling off pitches, laying off pitches; every at-bat has been a fight, a brawl, a chance that would not come again. Baseball is a long season, we all know that. And players have good days and bad, hurt days and healthy ones, muggy days and cool ones. The percentage difference between minor leaguer and big leaguer is tiny. The percentage difference between role player and regular player is even smaller. The difference between good player and excellent player is smaller still.
Where do those differences come from? Talent, sure. Work ethic, sure. Desire? Passion? Hunger? Grit? I don’t know, I suspect those words are for us sports writers. Maybe part of the difference comes from that little bit of extra concentration, the tiniest bit of sharpness that gets a player to lay off that pitch just off the plate, the patience that pushes a player to watch video and catch a tiny inconsistency in the pitcher’s delivery, the awareness that allows him to see that the third baseman is playing back or the second baseman is just a foot out of position. Whatever it is, Kevin Youkilis as much as anybody of his time made himself a great player by finding that tiny edge.
Youkilis was traded to the White Sox on Sunday, of course, and there’s no telling his future. He’s 33 and beat up -- he has never played 150 games in a season, and I suspect he never will. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, he’s hitting .251, and even though he has still found ways to not make outs, the question of whether his body will allow him to be an every day player again is an open-ended one.
But, it wouldn’t be right to underestimate Youk. Not after all the times he’s been underestimated before. Chicago is a good hitters park, a change of scenery gives him new motivation, and you never know.
I’ve read in story after story that Boston had to trade him, and I guess I can see that; baseball, like all sports and businesses, are inevitably harsh and unsentimental. Careers end, and usually not in glory. But then, there’s glory afterward. Boston is a place like most American places that adores its old heroes. If Youkilis adds another chapter in Chicago, that will be great. If not, hey, it’s been a blast. There has been plenty of glory, and plenty of joy. Think how many times Kevin Youkilis came up in Boston, and fans shouted. “They’re not booing,” an announcer would inevitably say. “They’re saying Youk.”