Friday, February 27, 2015

Greek God of Walks or Nah?

Kevin Youkilis was introduced to us as "The Greek God of Walks" in the 2003 book Moneyball. Fans of the book and stats nerds eagerly awaited his MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox in mid-2004, hoping that Youkilis could prove the value of sabermetric thought - he didn't play flashy defense, hit for high average or light-tower power, but he also didn't make outs. He was considered an On-Base Machine, a Greek God of Walks.

Fast forward to today, Youk hasn't played since 2013 and his career can be considered with some distance. By any measure he was a great success, The GGoW made three all-star games, produced 32 WAR and starred on a World Series team. His reputation will always reflect that success and will also be linked to the popularization of sabermetric ideas. But was he really what we thought he was? Was his career misrepresented by a narrative?

Perception: The idea is that Youkilis, the GGoW, was a blue collar ballplayer who battled in every plate appearance to beat the pitcher. He would any victory he could get, be that a home run or a walk. He had to. Youkilis didn't have the physical tools to be noticed out of high school and was an 8th round pick out of college. But he made a great career by playing smarter than his opponents.

Reality: Kevin Youkilis was an awesome ballplayer in his prime. He did everything. He played a good third base, hit for average (career .281 BA) and for power (.478 slugging). He also walked. A lot. But not nearly enough to earn the title GGoW.

The reality is that only once in his career did Kevin Youkilis crack the top ten in the American League in walks. I brought this statistic up to a couple friends who know Youk's reputation and they both asked if this was maybe a misrepresentation. Maybe he didn't have enough plate appearances and his BB% (as a percentage of plate appearances) would prove his excellence. I went and looked up the supposed GGoW's MLB rank in BB% each year he had at least 400 plate appearances.

2006 23rd
2007 32nd
2008 62nd
2009 23rd
2010 20th
2011 15th
2012 51st

Even in BB% Youkilis was not an elite cultivator of walks. No doubt he was very good, but he was never in the league of Adam Dunn, Nick Swisher or Oakland's own Jack Cust. Maybe Youkilis was just a very good, well-rounded ballplayer. Not the cyborg with excellent strike zone judgement that many make him out to be. 

P.S. Ideally, if I had access, I would have liked to look at Pitches/PA. Andy recommended checking that out to see if it told a different story. However, I'll leave that for somebody with better access to stats and more time.

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