FORT MYERS, Fla. – Even now, there are those who have a difficult time embracing the concept. THAT Kevin Youkilis, hitting cleanup for a Team USA lineup that includes some of the top sluggers in the majors? THAT Kevin Youkilis, entrusted with the responsibility of occupying the Red Sox cleanup spot that was once the domain of Manny Ramirez?
Certainly, the notion was once unfathomable. The idea that Youkilis could emerge as a power hitter worthy of that spot seemed far-fetched, at least for those willing to judge a book by its cover.
Plenty of people suggested Youkilis didn’t look like a baseball player, let alone a power hitter. Neither his physique nor his batting stance suggested an obvious ability to clear the fences.
Such critiques now seem ridiculous, as outdated as the notion that phrenology is a legitimate science. On Tuesday, Youkilis further undermined those who question his fitness for cleanup duties by slugging his third homer in five World Baseball Classic games.
The WBC performance simply continues a career trajectory that no one saw coming. Even Youkilis’ most vocal backers are amazed by what he has become as a player.
The two baseball teams that have benefited the most from the man who placed third in the American League MVP race last year wondered, at different times, whether he would ever be a meaningful contributor for them.
Brian Cleary, the baseball coach at the University of Cincinnati, recruited Youkilis out of Sycamore High School where he had an extremely successful but entirely unheralded career. (Most notably, Youkilis was the only player to take current Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook deep in high school.) Youkilis went to his local university almost by default, since no other teams actively recruited him.
Cleary had his own reservations.
“We had recruited two third baseman. The other guy was a taller, leaner guy and I remember thinking that guy is going to be a better defender than Youkilis will be,” said Cleary. “I just figured Youk would be slow-footed, probably have to play first base in college, a batter’s box guy ... But I thought he’d be able to hit for us. I didn’t know he’d wind up doing what he’s done.”
Youkilis exceeded Cleary’s expectations as he emerged as an offensive force with the Bearcats. He was a two-time All-American who set school records for homers (53), walks (206), OBP (.499) and slugging (.627). His defense, too, exceeded the expectations of the Cincinnati coach, who even had Youkilis play shortstop for a brief time.
Yet he went undrafted as a junior, and then after his senior season had to wait for 242 players to get selected before the Sox finally selected him in the eighth round. He signed for just $12,000, a trivial sum.
In retrospect, the baseball industry whiffed on a player who had proven himself as one of the top performers for Cincinnati and in the wood-bat Cape Cod Baseball League.
“Teams didn’t appreciate performance as much as they do now,” said Red Sox Vice-President of Player Personnel Ben Cherington. “His college performance was off the charts. If he was in the draft this year, he’d be at least a sandwich pick, if not a first rounder. His performance was that good, in college and on the Cape. Now, teams appreciate what that means. There’s no way he’d last that long now.”
But back then, scouts looked at a stocky third baseman, wondered whether he had a position other than first base in the majors (never anticipating that he would become a Gold Glover at the position) and asked whether he could hit with enough pop to forge a major-league future at a corner infield spot.
“When he was here, scouts would ask, ‘Does he show any power? Can he turn on the ball?’” said Cleary. “I would tell scouts he showed plenty of power for us. Does that translate to wood bats? I don’t know.”
Even though Youkilis performed at an exceptional level once he reached pro ball with the Sox, he did little to dispel the questions about his power. He debuted with Lowell in 2001, hitting .317 with a .506 OBP and .494 slugging mark, but just three homers.
Internally, some members of the Sox organization advocated using Youkilis as trade bait, believing that he was unlikely to become a significant contributor at the major-league level. Even though that line of thinking was dismissed sometime in 2002, Youkilis seemed unlikely to produce anything more than, at best, modest power totals.
He hit 19 homers in his first three pro seasons, spanning 1,097 at-bats. His early performance record was that of a hitter with excellent on-base skills who would mostly hit for singles and doubles.
“You looked at him, and we all knew he was a good hitter, that he could get on base, that he knew the strike zone. We thought, well, this guy can be a .300 hitter,” said Ron Johnson, who managed Youkilis when he was in Double-A in 2002 and 2003. “I’d like to say four years ago that I knew he‘d be a 30-120 guy. But I didn’t. Nobody did.”
Now, however, Youkilis is an offensive force, someone for whom homers no longer come as a surprise. Instead, it is a question of how far they go. Early in 2008, Cherington recalled, Youkilis slammed a homer off the back wall of the centerfield bleachers.
“He did not,” Cherington said, “hit balls like that in the minor leagues.”
What happened to allow Youkilis to do so? He remade himself completely.
THE BATTING STANCE
Dave Magadan took one look at the batting stance once employed by Kevin Youkilis as a collegiate All-American. The reaction was immediate.
“Oh my God,” the Red Sox hitting coach muttered, ushering over another coach to scrutinize a hitter who was all but unrecognizable. The picture of Youkilis in the batter’s box for the University of Cincinnati at the beginning of this decade shows a hitter with a dramatically different approach than the one who was one of the top sluggers in the American League last year. Magadan ticked through the differences rapidly.
The Youkilis of old had his legs spread wide, and sank into a pronounced crouch. Now, he is upright, feet close together. His bat went from angled back away from the pitcher to pointing towards him. In college, Youkilis held his hands away from his body, as opposed to the current set-up with his bat coiled against head. His weight, formerly shifted towards his back leg, is now more even distributed.
“It’s vastly different,” said Magadan. “[The college stance] is more the stance of a guy who’s not necessarily going to drive the ball out of the park. … That’s more of a stance that you usually see of a guy who’s a spray hitter, a line-drive hitter. Certainly there’s been power hitters who have had that type of stance, but it’s more the exception and not the rule. You don’t see a lot of power hitters who have a stance like that.”
That approach at the plate player into the notion that Youkilis could not, and would not, hit for power. Scouts wanted to see changes. The player’s college coach was unsure whether that was possible.
“Everyone told us he’s going to have to change that stance,” said Cleary. “I didn’t know if he would.”
Youkilis is now viewed as having one of the most unusual stances in baseball. He is almost pigeon-toed, and the manner in which he seems to massage his bat can be the source of comedy to players and fans alike.
Yet the result of those alterations is no joke, either for Youkilis or the opposing pitchers who are now dealing with the consequences of his adjustments. Over time, Youkilis has made startling changes to his set-up in the batter’s box. The result is a fundamental change in the sort of assaults that Youkilis carries out on a baseball.
“The adjustments he made to his hands, it’s allowed him to create a little more bat speed, a little more torque. The ball’s coming off his bat better,” said Cherington, who first saw Youkilis when he played in the Cape League early this decade. “As he’s gotten his hands into a different position, with his hands doing that unique thing, I think it’s allowed him to generate a little more barrel speed through the zone, allowed him to impact the ball.”
BECOMING AN ATHLETE
Yet Youkilis’ efforts to transform himself did not come solely in a batting cage.
Youkilis had always been strong, something that was evident in a strength and conditioning program in college that, in retrospect, was better geared for football players. But he didn’t necessarily look strong, something that had offered further cause for skepticism among scouts.
“He was kind of a square-shaped body, a guy that in a uniform didn’t look all that athletic. He wasn’t a tall, prospect-y looking guy,” said Cleary. “He looked chubby in a uniform, but if you saw him in a locker room with no shirt on, he wasn’t. It wasn’t fat. He was strong. (But) I think the body did scare some people away.”
By 2002, the Sox believed in the player’s skills, but wanted to see Youkilis become more athletic. Doing so, they felt, would benefit the player in all aspects of his game, contributing to power, improving his defensive agility and putting him in better position to endure the rigors of a 162-game season.
At the time, the team was in the middle of a systematic overhaul of its player development system. The team had a vision of the kind of infrastructure that it wanted to put in place, a comprehensive development program that dealt not just with on-field performance, but also everything from mental performance to nutrition to strength and conditioning programs.
Yet all of that was more theory than reality in 2002. And so, towards the end of that year, Cherington and then-Assistant G.M. Theo Epstein recommended that Youkilis head to Athletes’ Performance Institute in Arizona. The Sox offered to pay the roughly $7,000 tuition, and also housed Youkilis along with fellow prospect Freddy Sanchez.
That winter at API served as a key point of departure in Youkilis’ career.
“We felt like there was a unique skill, but there was a hurdle that we needed to help him get across to be a major-league defender and play a full season,” said Cherington. “He was always strong. There was strength underneath the body. But he’s really re-shaped his body. It’s a significant change.
“His body is more athletic, more explosive,” Cherington continued. “That’s made him a better defensive player, and probably contributed to his offensive growth.”
Youkilis bought into the program. Though the Sox stopped paying for his attendance, he kept going to API. After not participating after the 2003 season, he has been back for each of the past five offseasons.
For Youkilis, the benefits have been obvious. The wisdom of continuing the program that he started six offseasons ago has been undeniable.
“I know I’ve definitely gotten stronger. I understand and know how to get stronger,” Youkilis said earlier this spring. “This is a short period of our lives. You have to do what you can while you’re doing it.”
THE ERAS: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
Every time that it has been suggested that Youkilis has reached his ceiling, he has pushed beyond the supposed boundaries of his talents. His progress has been steady throughout his career.
Since he became an everyday player in 2006, Youkilis has enjoyed annual increases in batting average, slugging, runs batted in and, most notably, homers. In 2008, his 29 homers in 538 at-bats matched his total from the previous two seasons combined (1,097 at-bats).
Youkilis prides himself not just on the fact that he has eliminated a perceived shortcoming from his game, but also on the manner in which he has done so. The 30-year-old broke into the big leagues in 2004, the first year that Major League Baseball began mandatory testing for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. His power-hitting credentials have been forged at a time that penalizes cheaters.
The game has been sullied several times — most recently with the admission by Alex Rodriguez of steroid use — by revelations of past PED usage. Youkilis is hopeful that he can offer an example of a player whose improvement was achieved without short-cuts.
“I’ve never shown up for anything positive. I take pride in that,” said Youkilis. “I’ve had to work hard to get where I am today. A couple people, I’ve told them I never eat thought of (using PEDs), and they were like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I’ve never thought of it. I didn’t need that. I couldn’t see myself injecting myself and not knowing what was going to happen.
“That era’s kind of died out. It was kind of a crazy era. You can tell. Bodies now aren’t as close to as big now as they used to be. You can just tell,” he continued. “(The steroid revelations are) a good thing. It’s a great thing for the game. As much as it’s bad for the game (in the short run), it’s going to bring a lot of good in. … I just hope the fans don’t get deterred. There are some guys who bust their butts every day, who work hard and do it the right way.”
Even with his emergence as an All-Star and MVP candidate, even with the security of a long-term contract, Youkilis is committed to remaining just such a player. He is not content with what he has accomplished to this point. The man who proved so many skeptics wrong to reach this point in his career remains motivated by the possibility of proving something more to himself.
“If you have the attitude that, ‘I’ve done enough,’ that might be as far as you go,” he said. “I feel like I can do better, become a better player. It’s about getting a little better each day and not being satisfied. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied.”
That attitude has gotten Youkilis to his current station as one of the elite players in baseball. Where it might take him going forward is anyone’s guess, but at this point, it would be foolish to put a limit on that potential.