For the second straight season, Kevin Youkilis has performed at a level that should place him in conversations about the top players in the American League. And yet somehow his name rarely gets recognized among baseball’s elite.
The subject of American League Most Valuable Player typically revolves around Twins catcher Joe Mauer, Yankees Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter and perhaps Angels first baseman Kendry Morales (all, to be sure, deserving candidates). Youkilis is no more than a second-tier consideration.
When the topic of the top talents in the A.L. comes up, it is more often those who make the game look graceful and effortless who will jump to the forefront. Youkilis, a player who will never be described in those terms, is rarely part of that discussion.
That is not necessarily the fault of those outside the game who are responsible for creating such labels. After all, Youkilis himself struggles to view himself as one of the game’s top talents.
“I’ve never seen myself as the best player,” said Youkilis. “I never thought of myself as a player like that. I always wanted to be a great baseball player, but when I go to the All-Star Game and see those guys around me, I’m always in disbelief of how I’m there, or how I’ve come to make it to the All-Star Games.”
Yet opponents no longer doubt his talent. In many respects, Boston’s cleanup hitter is viewed as a key cog — perhaps the key cog — of the Red Sox offense.
His tenacious approach, the ability to make consistent hard contact, the absence of holes in his swing, the ability to make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch have established him as a force with whom opponents must reckon.
“I really believe that this year, in the present-day Red Sox, without him in that lineup it’s entirely different,” said Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon. “He’s one of my least favorite guys to see come up in a crucial situation. I just don’t like to see him up when it matters. I don’t like to see him period.
“He’s just a complete hitter. He’s a real pain in the butt,” Maddon continued with a note of admiration. “He’s normally not going to get himself out. You’re going to have to get him out. He’s going to hit the ball hard somewhere. You’re going to have to be in the right spot.”
The league has done its best to adjust to Youkilis following a 2008 campaign in which he finished third in the American League in MVP voting. The tactics have not worked.
One year after a breakout campaign that featured a .312 average, .390 OBP, .569 slugging mark and .958 OPS with 29 homers, Youkilis has maintained his performance in a fashion that suggests remarkable consistency. Entering Tuesday, he is hitting .314 (8th in the A.L.) with a .421 OBP (2nd), .568 slugging (3rd) and .988 OPS (2nd) with 25 round-trippers (on pace for 29).
Once again, he has been a force in his team’s charge towards the postseason. In the second half, he leads the Sox in average (.337), OBP (.423), slugging (.570) and OPS (.993).
The 2008 season was a breakout campaign for Youkilis. With the 2009 season, he has shown that it was his performance baseline rather than merely a once-in-a-career aberration. Indeed, a case can be made that he has been the best player in the American League over the past two years.
He is first in the A.L. and third in the majors (behind only Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez) in both slugging percentage and OPS over the last two years, and he is second in the A.L. and ninth in the majors with a .404 OBP.
Though he gives little credence to the statistical markers of his success, the 30-year-old does take pride in the fact that, in his fourth year as an everyday player, he has achieved consistency in both his process and his performance.
“I’ve kind of thrown away the stat thing,” said Youkilis. “I know a lot of guys have stat goals, but I think if you go out and play hard every day and try to get better every day you are going to achieve great things.
“I’m never satisfied with what I’ve done. I always think I can do better,” he added. “Hopefully this will be the way that my career keeps going until I’m done playing and it is time to call it quits. I’d like to able to play at a top level. I keep trying to learn the game, trying to be more consistent every day. It’s something I try to put forth on a daily basis.”
Over the course of the full year, he clearly has been the most valuable position player on the Sox. His performance at the plate, coupled with the versatility in the field that has allowed the Sox to manage their revolving lineup with Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez and David Ortiz, makes a compelling case that he is the Red Sox MVP. Yet the storylines about the team have seemed to feature anyone except Youkilis.
More frequently, it has been the impact of newcomer Martinez or the recent power surges of Dustin Pedroia and Jason Bay or the tremendous second-half performance of Lowell in a slightly-less-than-full-time role that have garnered attention. Or perhaps it is the state of the team’s rotation or bullpen that has served as a focal point.
Almost never, however, is Youkilis’ immense 2009 campaign the topic du jour. Though it seems all but impossible, he has managed to emerge in baseball-obsessed Boston as an under-the-radar MVP-caliber player.
“He doesn’t do anything flashy. He doesn’t have MVP on his name. He’s one of those blue-collar guys that people like to follow and rally around. He works hard and goes home,” said Bay. “For us, he’s a Gold Glover at first or third, depending on where you need him. He’s a guy in the middle of our order who drives people in and gets on base. I think it’s going overlooked.”
WHY NOT MORE RECOGNITION?
There are several possibilities as to why Youkilis is enjoying a monster season that nevertheless flies under the radar.
In some respects, he might be a victim of his early season success. In April, after all, he hit .395 with a 1.203 OPS. From there, his numbers — though still above average — went into a steady descent heading into the All-Star break, his average, OBP and slugging marks all sliding steadily leading into the end of the first half.
Of course, Youkilis also saw a tremendous start to the season interrupted by an oblique strain at the beginning of May, when he was leading the league in seemingly every major category. Those 15 days on the sidelines dampened his statistics, and may have diminished the recognition of his accomplishments.
“Last year, he had an MVP-type season,” said Bay. “I think this year his numbers with lesser games played are better, but because of [the missed time], it goes unnoticed.”
Moreover, Youkilis pushed to return from the D.L. as quickly as possible, rather than waiting until he felt completely recovered. While dealing with the dual effects of his injury and a reduced feel for his timing at the plate, he found himself in something of a slide shortly after his return.
He initially hit well after his return on May 20 but then saw his performance take a hit over the next part part of the season leading into the All-Star break. Even so, while admitting that he was not yet completely healthy upon his return, Youkilis neither regrets the timing of his return nor uses it as a justification for his struggles.
“I didn’t feel 100 percent coming back,” he said. “But, you know, you are not ever going to feel 100 percent. I always joke around, the day you come into spring training, the day you take your first practice, you are never 100 percent again. And if you are 100 percent, you were on the D.L. way too long. You can play through stuff, and that is always my philosophy, you can play through stuff.
“I wasn’t 100 percent but I knew I was going to get better and better each day. But, a lot of it is timing when you are gone for 15 days and then you come back.”
Moreover, some of Youkilis’ key contributions are easy to overlook, especially for those who do not monitor him on a daily basis. For instance, his A.L.-leading 4.38 pitches per plate appearance won’t appear on the back of a baseball card. All the same, his refusal to give away any pitches during an at-bat is the sort of thing that amazes his teammates and proves a difference-maker in taxing an opposing pitcher.
“He fouls off a lot of pitches, kind of a pitch-count nightmare, if you will,” said Bay. “The joke is, one way or the other, two to three times a game he’s going to get you to a full count.”
Moreover, the fact that he does cross the diamond and head from first to third — something that facilitates the Sox’ six-players-for-four-positions lineup — is not always seen. Nationally, he is clumped with the group of A.L. first basemen when evaluating the league’s stars.
The move from first to third is “hasn’t been easy from a comfort level,” Youkilis admitted. He now has a first baseman’s instincts, meaning that his default reaction when a ball is hit at him is often to stay back on it instead of coming in to make the play before firing across the diamond.
That Youkilis has made the move back and forth across the diamond look so natural amazes his teammates. Yet his ability to do so is the sort of thing that often does little to garner accolades from cities outside of Boston.
On the other hand, Youkilis has little difficulty cultivating detractors away from his baseball home.
‘THE BIGGEST COMPLIMENT THAT YOU CAN GET’
Youkilis is a frequent target of the ire of opponents. Much like fellow Cincinnati native Paul O’Neill, whose intensity irked other teams and their fans, Youkilis simply manages to get under the skin of teams and cities that actively root against him.
He hears a steady shower of verbal barrages when going into a ballpark as a visitor. Though he is uncomfortable with the absence of civility, he has come to accept that the hostility he encounters is a sort of backhanded compliment.
“The more ‘Youkilis, you suck’ I get — you keep hearing it and you just want to tell the fan off — but the more you hear that, it is a positive thing,” said Youkilis. “It’s not a natural thing in life, but as athletes it is the biggest complIment that you can get, which is sick.”
On the other hand, he exhibits few reservations about the fact that opposing baseball players have a similar view of him.
Sox infielder Nick Green describes Youkilis as “the kind of guy you want on your team … because of the grind he goes through.” That said, Green admits that when he was with other teams and played against the corner infielder, “He wasn’t the type of guy that you wanted to play against. He kind of annoyed you.”
Youkilis has heard that sort of sentiment plenty of times. Somehow, his unrelenting intensity and max-effort approach, his almost desperate desire to win, have made him a polarizing figure. Teammates appreciate his relentlessness; opponents consider him a pain. Youkilis embraces both reactions.
“You want to be that guy, you want to be that guy where people say, ‘We hate facing this guy,’ because you are getting hits, you are doing things,” said Youkilis. “I love it. There is nothing greater than [that] people always tell me how teams hate me. They are like, ‘Oh, god, guys can’t stand you on the other team.’
“It’s not a bad thing. I don’t want the other team to like me. You know, I’ll get along with guys and talk with other guys, but I don’t want that team to like me. They shouldn’t like me because I am trying to stick it to them every night.”
More often than not, it would seem, Youkilis does just that. Regardless of the forms of recognition that he receives, the two-time All-Star takes immense pride in what he has accomplished, and in the knowledge that he has now proven that he can sustain his performance as one of the top players in the game.
“After last year I knew that I could play at that level,” Youkilis said. “I am probably not the most gifted athlete, with the body and all that stuff. But I know that I am a good baseball player and I am going to work hard every day, every year just to be that good baseball player.
“I believe in my abilities, believe I can do it,” he said. “I’m not looking to play this game until I am 40, so hopefully I can retire playing at that kind of level without going downhill.”