A pudgy 25-year old named Kevin Youkilis made his major league debut in 2004, having made waves a year earlier for being the posterchild for Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. In his first game on May 15 in Toronto, Youkilis cranked a home run for his first major league hit off Pat Hentgen. As he came to the bench after the home run, the Sox ignored him as if nothing had happened. Catching on to the hazing ritual, Youkilis grinned and high-fived the air, pretending people were there for him. It’s one of the feel-good stories of the season the Sox would eventually break their curse in.
Due to injury, Youkilis amassed 208 at-bats that season, hitting for a .780 OPS which remains a career low. The following year, he spent much of the year in Triple-A although he did see 79 at-bats in the bigs. 2006 is when Youkilis stepped in as a starter, moving over from his natural position of third base to first.
Side note: When Youkilis was called up, I wondered why Youkilis and not Earl Snyder. Oh, hindsight. To save face, I bring you, from the same article, my evaluation of Youk: “He can be a viable major leaguer due to his obscene batting eye and could average around a .260-.270 average each year with developing power. He would be a rock-solid third baseman for us – never costing us too much and always giving us good statistics.” Looks like I did a pretty good job nailing it.
Youk steadily increased his offensive output from 2006-7 (winning another ring as well), nabbing a Gold Glove in 2007. (Fire Brand archive: All Hail Youkilis, 5/18/07.) A reputation began to develop: Youkilis was a hard-nosed player that perturbed some with his fiery emotional nature, something he has worked to temper in recent years. In addition, a trend began to develop that Youk was a first-half player. His OPS during the first half in both 2006 and 2007 were .874 and .920, respectively, before dropping off to .728 and .747. (Fire Brand archive: The Fall of Youk, 9/11/07.)
2008 rolled around, and the Greek God of Walks finished third in MVP voting (Fire Brand archive: Is Kevin Youkilis a MVP candidate? 8/18/08.), banging out 27 home runs, 94 RBI, 91 runs and 43 doubles en route to a .312/.390/.569 mark. Following the 2008 season when Youk played at age 29, he inked a four year, $41.125 million pact.
There were questions on if Youk’s 2008 was a career season or the real deal. .305/.413/.548 line later, we know the answer. Despite a higher OPS (barely) in 2010 with a .961 mark, Youk fell to sixth in the MVP voting and was essentially an afterthought. (Fire Brand archive: Time to give Youkilis credit: Deserves to be in MVP mix, 9/4/09.)
Youk was certainly a late bloomer, but he’s been an invaluable part of the club for the last four years. (Fire Brand archive: Kevin Youkilis is the real deal, 5/11/09.) His ability to toggle between first and third base has left the club with fantastic flexibility, and his plate discipline is top-notch. He has taken a step back in that regard, though, as he has become more aggressive about swinging in early counts. As a result, his batting average along with total bases (naturally) has risen.
To be sure, plate discipline is a very valuable trait, but Youkilis shows that one can decrease walks total to the benefit of the overall game. Before, it was near guaranteed that Youk would take the first pitch, perhaps the second, before thinking about swinging. (Fire Brand archive: Kevin Youkilis: The Swinger, 3/4/09; Kevin Youkilis and the Curious Case of Selective Aggression, 1/6/09.)
Unfortunately, given the late start to Youk’s career, he’s likely to have a relatively short career for someone at the top of his game — not uncoincidentally, the Sox locked Youk up through age 33, around the time his skillset will likely decline. Another negative to Youkilis is that he often has back spasms, although quite obviously it hasn’t become a liability yet.
Boston has protected themselves with a 2013 option and still have designs on moving him to third, I would think — assuming Adrian Beltre doesn’t re-up for a longer contract after 2010.
With a .292/.391/.487 line in the decade, two World Series rings on his fingers, and heavy MVP consideration, Kevin Youkilis is far and away the All-Aughts Team of the Decade 1B.
I do want to shout out honorable mention to two: Kevin Millar and Brian Daubach.
Millar was claimed off waivers from the Marlins before the 2003 season, causing a brouhaha with the Japanese. Millar had been waived to be sent to Japan but Boston astutely would have none of it, identifying that Millar had plenty of talent left. In 2003 and 2004, Millar was integral to the middle of the order, and he was the one to turn the clubhouse around, taking it from poisonous to cowboys to idiots. .282/.362/.451 from 2003-5 in 432 games.
Daubach is on a very short list along with luminaries like Ted Williams for 20-plus home runs the first four years of his career in Boston. From 1999-2002, Daubers was essentially Millar himself, and I find it ironic that he, Millar and Youkilis all ended up with World Series rings. (Daubach had 75 at-bats with Boston in 2004 after a stint with Chicago the year before.) All told, he hit .265/.341/.488 in 541 games.
Players who played first base for the Red Sox from 2000-9, sorted by last name: Andy Abad, Jeff Bailey, Aaron Bates, Rico Brogna, Sean Casey, Tony Clark, Brian Daubach, Andy Dominique, Casey Kotchman, Mark Kotsay, Adam LaRoche, Doug McCarty, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kevin Millar, John Olerud, David Ortiz, Carlos Pena, Roberto Petagine, Calvin Pickering, J.T. Snow, Mike Stanley, Kevin Youkilis