FORT MYERS, Fla. – He has become the best player on a team that is typically one of the best in the game. His numbers rival those of nearly anyone in the game, putting him on the short list for the American League MVP Award in two straight years.
But the spotlight does not shine on Kevin Youkilis.
David Ortiz is a presence in the Sox clubhouse. Dustin Pedroia is a trash-talking force of nature. Both are among the Sox stars who command attention with almost every moment.
Not so for Youkilis. The 31-year-old’s locker is rarely surrounded. He inhabits a relatively quiet spring existence, largely staying off the media radar save for the occasional charitable foray into a charitable election for the sculpting of his facial hair. Aside from the attention that he is trying to generate for that endeavor, Youkilis moves quickly in and out of the Red Sox locker room, sometimes without notice, as he goes about the business of dedicating himself to his craft in preparation for the season.
Statistically, Youkilis profiles as a superstar. Yet there is little public evidence to suggest as much. But then, even Youkilis struggles to recognize himself as inhabiting the ether in which players such as Justin Morneau and Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez reside.
“Every time I go to an All-Star game, basically, I’m in shock that I’m there, that I made an All-Star team,” said Youkilis. “I always think there are guys who are ahead of me in the game. Sometimes I know that I can play at that level, but I don’t think of myself as an elite player. … I just think I’m a good player on a good team.”
But he is more than that. He is not just a member of the Sox, but a significant component of the engine that makes the lineup go. He represents an anchor in the offense, someone whose ability to produce regardless of where he hits in the lineup or who hits around him is taken by the Sox as a given.
That ability, in turn, helps explain why the Sox feel secure in the notion that there is life after Jason Bay. Though the outfielder represents a major bat that will be gone, the Sox retain a player who is considered an offensive force.
“We’re the Boston Red Sox. We play in the toughest division in baseball. And he hits in the middle of our lineup,” said hitting coach Dave Magadan. “He might be a little different animal than a lot of other teams have hitting fourth, but I’ll take him over anybody else. He gives you a great at-bat. Guys in scoring position, he’s going to grind out the at-bat, make the pitcher work. He’s going to get on for the guys hitting behind him. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
Such claims might seem like hyperbole, but they do reinforce that Youkilis’ numbers compare favorably to nearly any player in the game since the start of the 2008 season. In that time, he has hit .309/.401/.559/.960. He is at or near the top of the leaderboard by several measures of offensive impact, including OPS (3rd in majors, 1st among those who have spent the last two years in the A.L.), OBP (10th, 2nd), slugging (4th, 1st), homers (56, 25th in the majors, 7th in the A.L.) and RBIs (209; 11th, 2nd).
In short, regardless of whether he is thought of in the same light as the Teixeiras and Morneaus and Rodriguezes of the game, he has been at least those players’ peer for the last two seasons.
“The last few years, he’s been one of the best players in the game. I view him as the top tier,” added second baseman Dustin Pedroia. “Everyone should. And if they don’t, they will. He’s continuing to get better. He’s a force.”
Yet there still seems some disconnect between his performance and his perception. And so one must wonder: why?
If one were to draw up the prototype of an elite middle-of-the-order hitter, it would not look like Youkilis.
He is listed as 6-foot-1, but more likely stands a couple inches shorter than that. He does not have the long limbs to create leverage, instead featuring a squat, thick, powerful frame.
Appearance unquestionably impacted how he was viewed earlier in his career. And even now, perhaps the bias persists.
“He’s really turned himself into one of the better hitters in the game,” said Mike Lowell. “Does he not invoke fear because he’s not 6-foot-6, 250? I think that’s an advantage, because pitchers might get a little bit slack on him.”
For years, Youkilis heard the suggestions that his physique would serve as an impediment to his career. Indeed, he was keenly aware that just such a thing was transpiring when he could not garner a single full scholarship offer to play college ball, despite tremendous success as a high schooler.
“No one took me in college because of the body type,” said Youkilis. “It’s baseball. This isn’t muscle fitness and body building. This is baseball, and if you’re a baseball player, you’re a baseball player. Babe Ruth didn’t look like much of a baseball player, but he was one of the best of all time. There’s great hitters along the way who didn’t have the bodies, but they go out and play the game the right way.
“You can’t worry about that stuff. I’ve gotten over that,” he added. “Growing up, you get a little self-conscious. … [But] you can’t change your genetics, but you can change what you can do on the field and get better at the game. For me, that’s what I did.”
THE CAREER PATH
That determination to improve achieved results, but it also may help to explain why he does not immediately come to mind when contemplating the top run producers in the game.
Youkilis has become a player who consistently impacts the ball, the result of many of his life-and-death intensity at-bats being a ball that is driven to some part of the field – whether a line drive or a pitch that he can elevate and drive for extra bases. Yet he was not always such a player.
His professional career started without any hype, as he was quietly signed by the Sox as an eighth-round pick after his senior year of college, having gone undrafted as a junior.
He did make an impression in the minors, but chiefly on the strength of his ability to reach base. In fact, his OBP while moving through the Sox system (.442) was higher than his slugging percentage (.439). He never hit more than eight homers in a minor league season, and there were few who projected him to have anything but gap power.
Even in the majors, his power – while increased – remained modest. Through 2007, his big league slugging mark was .434, a mark that was better suited to middle infielders (Craig Biggio, Freddy Sanchez, Todd Walker, Orlando Hudson, Mark Ellis, Brian Roberts and Placido Polanco all had slugging marks between .430 and .440 during that four-year span) than a corner. He averaged 15 homers per 162 games – a decent total, yet not an outlandish one.
It was only in 2008 that Youkilis started changing how he was viewed as a slugger, when he went deep 29 times. While his ability to produce similar power totals in 2009 (when he hit 27) would seem to validate his notion as a slugger, it may take more time for him to redefine how he is perceived.
“I think he hasn’t done it for enough years. If he does it for five years in a row, then this wouldn’t be an issue,” said Lowell. “[Fans] who see him as, ‘Hey – we thought this was the guy who was filled in at first, and he ends up having a great year’ would be, ‘We can pretty much rely on him having a monster year.’
“He didn’t come in with the hype of a first-rounder or as anything. He came in with the hype of a guy who got on base a lot because of Moneyball. I think that’s a certain stereotype that people had for him that he had to change. But I don’t think he cares.”
It is worth noting that Youkilis’ career path is very much atypical. Power typically manifests itself earlier. For Youkilis to match his combined home run total from the 2006 and 2007 seasons in the 2008 season alone is unusual.
That the 31-year-old has accomplished that feat is a testament to the extraordinary work that he’s put into bettering himself. He has made a far-reaching commitment to fitness, and he has been just as diligent in looking for any shortcomings in his game that he has diminished their impact.
“He’s one of the elite players in the league. … He’s worked himself into that type of player,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “I think he’s grown into [power]. He’s worked hard. He’s stronger. He swings at good pitches. He swings at pitches he can handle. When he first came up, the one struggle I’d say he had was the right-handed slider. He worked so hard at it that now it’s not a problem.”
That, in turn, has helped Youkilis on his unexpected rise to the stature of being one of the best players in the game.
“He’s not just a good hitter. He’s a force,” said Francona. “If he has a typical year, he’s going to have MVP votes. That’s a pretty good hitter.”
That being the case, one can only wonder what it will take for Youkilis to be regarded as a superstar – or what it might take for the first baseman to view himself in that light. When will he view himself as one of the top players in the game?
“Hopefully never,” said Youkilis. “Or maybe one day when I’m sitting on a rocking chair by myself. I think humility is a great thing in life.”
Yet even if he wants to remain humble, his numbers refuse to do so. Regardless of how he is viewed, he produces at a level that has established him as one of the top talents in the game.
And as for the spotlight that seems not to shine on him?
“I don’t think that would make him any better,” said Varitek. “I think he’s great at what he does.”