It is a strange time in the career of Kevin Youkilis, one in which the 33-year-old is confronted by different perceptions and, as such, new uncertainties.
Yes, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine apologized to the third baseman for the glib suggestion that Youkilis was no longer as physically and emotionally into the game as he has been in the past. Nonetheless, even without the oddity of seeing Youkilis -- a player widely understood to treat every at-bat as if the fate of the free world depended upon it, and who tried to play through a devastatingly painful injury last year -- have his effort level questioned, Valentine’s statements represented merely the latest evidence of the rocky terrain that now confronts the veteran.
Youkilis is a three-time All-Star. Indeed, just a year ago, he was named to the All-Star team after leading (by a wide margin) all major league third baseman with a .911 OPS in the first half of the season.
He is one of just two remaining links (along with David Ortiz) to the only two Red Sox championships of the past 94 years. From 2008-11, he was fifth in baseball in OPS (.933) behind only Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto and Prince Fielder, ahead of players like Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.
In 11 years in the Red Sox organization, he has grown from a player who came to prominence thanks to a catchy nickname in a bestseller to a legitimate prospect to a role player on a championship team, then kept developing into a steady regular and finally a star who ranked among the game’s best hitters.
But Youkilis is now 33, having slipped outside the zone that is typically described as a player’s prime. He is coming off his second straight year that ended early due to an injury that required surgery. Perhaps more significantly in terms of public perception, he is coming off an injury that rendered him ineffectual during the second half when he did manage to take the field in spite of nearly debilitating pain.
And, by the way, all of this is occurring against a backdrop in which Youkilis has no guarantees about his future with the Red Sox. He is in the final season of the four-year, $41.125 million deal that he signed with the Red Sox after his breakout 2008 season.
The team holds a $13 million option for next year, and so it holds the cards in deciding whether to retain Youkilis or cut him loose after 2012. The timing of that contractual crossroads is made all the more intriguing by the fact that the Red Sox’ top prospect, Will Middlebrooks, plays his position and is currently engaged in what seems like a nightly assault on Triple-A pitching, hitting .333 with a .347 OBP, .930 OPS, three homers and three doubles in 11 games.
Valentine’s comments merely added to that combustible mix. After all, a slow start -- Youkilis went 0-for-12 with five strikeouts and five groundouts to start the year -- already had led to questions about whether eight punishing seasons in the big leagues had left Youkilis breaking down. It took just three games this year for Youkilis to find himself staring at a pack of reporters in Toronto asking whether he could still play the game at his customary levels.
What to make of this confluence of circumstances, which has arrived at a time when Youkilis is hitting .200 with a .265 OBP, .233 slugging mark and .498 OPS?
Can Youkilis remain healthy? That remains to be seen. He has long said that he will redline in terms of effort level, throwing his body around the field with abandon, at the expense of longevity. He reiterated that notion on Tuesday.
“Everyone knows I go out and play the game as hard as I can. That’s just my style of play,” Youkilis told reporters. “I never was blessed with the raw tools like the guys who have got tools, so I’ve always had to use playing the game as hard and with full effort my whole life. I don’t know any better.”
Youkilis played 145-147 games for three straight years from 2006-08, but saw that number fall to 136, 102 and 120 in the last three years (average 119 per year). He’s gone on the disabled list for an oblique strain, a torn adductor muscle in his thumb and the combination of a sports hernia and hip bursitis that left him unable to function comfortably at the end of last year.
Though he sat out of Monday’s game against the Rays with a sore groin, Youkilis insists that he feels a night-and-day difference from what he endured during the second half of last year.
“I feel way better. Physically, in the field, moving around, stuff like that, I feel good,” he said. “I feel like my defense is going to be a lot better than it was. I think I can move and get to balls better. I think I’ve shown the past couple games that I’ve gotten to balls and I can move out there.
“One play that got by me, it was [a hit by Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar]. I dove. I felt like, ‘Wow, I got to that ball pretty good. It just beat me.’ But it was funny. I was like, ‘I felt really good right there. I almost had that.’ Where last year, I would have been like, getting off the ground, ‘Holy smokes this hurts.’ Every time I’d dive to my left and hit on my hip, that’s where it got me.”
But Youkilis understands that regardless of how he feels, if he struggles, the suspicion will linger that he is breaking down.
“If you maintain it, you’re going to be fine,” Youkilis said of the process of maintenance necessary in the aftermath of the surgery that repaired his sports hernia after last season. “If you don’t maintain it, do all the stuff you need to do to stay on top of it, it can go the other way.
“I don’t think physical ailments are why I’m not tearing the ball off the cover right now,” he added. “It’s just a matter of good pitching, not getting pitches to hit sometimes, then getting pitches to hit and not doing what you need to do.”
“This has nothing to do with his surgery,” Joe Bick, Youkilis’ agent, added last week (before the Valentine remarks) of his client’s slow start. “The recovery process is over. He’s fine, and has been for a long time. He feels great physically. Quite simply, he’s not swinging the bat well at the start of the season. It’s happened before. Am I concerned about it? Not in the least. I’m quite certain Kevin Youkilis will get hot.”
THE SEARCH FOR A SWING
While the surgery may not be directly responsible for the third baseman’s slow start, it would be within the realm of reason to suggest that the missed time with the injury last year as well as the recovery process are impacting Youkilis at the plate now. He has been working with hitting coach Dave Magadan to return to the mechanics that he used in 2008.
That can take time, particularly for Youkilis. In trying to explain his comments about Youkilis prior to Monday’s game againt the Rays, Valentine clarified that he was focused on his third baseman’s mechanics in suggesting that he wasn’t physically as into the game as in the past.
“I should have explained that his swing isn’t what he wants it to be,” said Valentine. “The physical part of his swing is frustrating.”
(That statement on Monday, in fact, echoed what Valentine had told reporters about Youkilis last Tuesday in Toronto, at a time when he was still looking for his first hit of the year.
“There have been some hard-hit outs. I just don’t think that even those swings aren’t quite what he’s looking for. They could be,” said Valentine. “Sometimes it’s just a bloop, never mind a hard-hit out. Sometimes it’s just a bloop over the first baseman’s head by a right-hander that drives in three runs and you’re off to the races. I like his competitiveness. I know he’s still a force in the lineup. I’m glad he’s healthy enough to go out there every day.”)
In that context, it is worth noting that Youkilis has always operated with unusual batting stances that feature plenty of moving parts. It’s a complicated swing, and given that he struggled to maintain his mechanics (due to injury) and then missed time last season, the idea that he is still searching for his form at the plate becomes less surprising.
“I think it’s just a timing issue, and I’m confident that if we’re talking two weeks from now, that it will be markedly improved,” said Bick. “Kevin Youkilis has thousands of major league at-bats that tell me, his numbers will get a whole lot better.”
Part of the reason for Bick’s faith draws on the third baseman’s 2011 season. Through his first eight games of last year, Youkilis hit .125/.364/.208/.572 (compared to this year’s line of .200/.265/.233/.498). Over his next 75 games of 2011 leading into the All-Star break, Youkilis hit .299/.403/.539/.942 with 13 homers.
Perhaps it is merely a matter of time before he shakes free of the cobwebs that seemingly formed during his recovery from surgery. At the same time, while Youkilis would have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt in that quest (as he did last year) in recent seasons, it is clear that his second straight stumble out of the gate is being treated to heightened scrutiny, something that may only intensify in the aftermath of Valentine’s comments.
AN AGE OF SUSPICION
That scrutiny stems from the fact that Youkilis has landed on the DL in three straight years and because he has entered what it typically the post-prime years. A quick look at the graphic on the right illustrates the diminished likelihood of a player sustaining his levels of productivity through his 30s. With each year added to a player’s age, the likelihood that he will be able to perform at or above an OPS+ of 100 or better (meaning the player’s OPS relative to that of an average player in a league, with 100 representing the average) decreases.
That reality, in turn, informs opinion about a player. Once a player reaches the post-prime years, it becomes more difficult to accept that a slump is a self-contained event. Instead, each dip in performance comes with the question of whether this is the sign of inevitable decline.
And so, for Youkilis, a poor showing in spring training and/or the first few games of the season takes on more ominous tones than might have been the case when he was 29 or 31. That does not mean that a slump is an indicator that he is in irreversible decline, but instead suggests that he has arrived at a point where, fairly or not, even brief struggles become increasingly difficult to evaluate on their own merits and instead get subjected to a broader range of inquiries.
Such was the case when Youkilis went 0-for-12 in his first three games of the year and 2-for-20 in the season-opening roadtrip. Ordinarily, such stretches would be seen as such trivial sample sizes as to be irrelevant. This year, they were viewed by some fans and pundits as red flags, at least prior to Youkilis going 4-for-10 and reaching base seven times in 14 plate appearances (again, a ridiculously small sample) upon the team's return to Fenway Park.
The Red Sox and Youkilis have not had any conversations to date about his option or his future with the team beyond this year. No surprise there.
The team will naturally want to see if Youkilis can be healthy and productive when making its assessment about his option, much in the same fashion that the team waited until after the 2010 season before exercising David Ortiz’s option. And so, the likelihood is that the option won’t become a real topic of conversation between Youkilis and the team until after the season.
Youkilis has always understood that while he ceded the ultimate decision about where he will play in 2013 to the club, that he can exert a significant influence over the decision-making process through his play. As such, there is nothing to suggest that he is fretting about his future with the Red Sox.
Still, the fact that he is nearing the end of his contract -- and that Middlebrooks is in the late stages of his minor league development -- does alter the Youkilis dynamic to a degree. If there were questions about an erosion of skill, the Sox would not have to remain committed to him as they might have at the start of the four-year deal.
THE NEW ORDER
David Ortiz confronted the same sort of crossroads in 2009 and 2010, years in which his slow starts were suddenly magnified into questions of whether his days as an elite or even productive regular were over. Ultimately, it was his bat that offered the only possible rebuttal to those who suggested that he was ceding ground to the forces of age.
Back in those seasons, Youkilis was dismissive of Ortiz’s doubters, insisting that those who would ignore the designated hitter’s track record as one of the best sluggers in the game were akin to ostriches with heads deep in the sand. In the early stages of this season, it appears likely that Youkilis will have to muster that same conviction about himself.
That does not mean his best days are necessarily behind him. The 2011 season underscored that it would be folly to dismiss Youkilis’ potential production based on April.
Nonetheless, it is a time when Youkilis faces a host of unfamiliar circumstances. The unexpected comments of his manager are only part of that. For Youkilis, there has been a foreignness to the start of 2012 that can be addressed chiefly, and perhaps only, by a return to his established levels of production.