Friday, October 31, 2014

Youkilis Retires

Youkilis shows off hi bizarre hitting style (NYTimes)
After one season in Japan, former Red Sox corner infielder Kevin Youkilis is calling it a career.

Youkilis, known simply as Youk to Fenway Faithful, enjoyed a 10-year major league career, spending the first eight and a half of those seasons with Boston. Drafted by Dan Duquette in the eighth round of the 2001 draft, the disciplined third baseman received a new nickname--"Greek God of Walks"--from Billy Beane's Oakland A's organization. That patience would serve him well in the big leagues, where he maintained a robust .382 OBP and 12.2 BB%.

Youkilis arrived on the scene in 2004, just in time to help the beleaguered BoSox end their 86-year championship drought. He was a solid reserve on that team and the following year's squad, backing up Kevin Millar at first and Bill Mueller at third. Both left following the 2005 season, allowing Youkilis to inherit the everyday first baseman job with the Red Sox acquiring Mike Lowell, an All-Star third-sacker, in their trade for Josh Beckett.

Already 27 by that point, Youkilis was more than ready. He batted .279/.381/.429 in his first full season along with 42 doubles and a career-high 91 walks and 100 runs scored. He was even better the following year, improving from a three win player to a five win stalwart and earning his first and only Gold Glove.

More importantly, Youkilis sparked Boston to another World Series title that year. A non-factor in the '04 run with just two at-bats, he was one of the team's best hitters in '07 and proved crucial to their victory. Youk was especially lethal during Boston's come-from-behind ALCS victory over the Cleveland Indians, batting .500/.576/.929 with 14 hits, three home runs, seven RBI, and 10 runs scored. Against Colorado in the Fall Classic he capped off a terrific postseason in which he batted .388/.475/.755 with 19 hits in 14 games.

The following year, 2008, would be the best of Youk's career. He enjoyed a power breakthrough with 29 home runs--equaling his output from the previous two seasons combined--43 doubles, 306 total bases, and 115 RBI, all career highs. He also hit .312/.390/.569, made his first All-Star team, won the American League Hank Aaron Award, and finished third in the MVP race behind teammate Dustin Pedroia and Justin Morneau. Youkilis was instrumental in helping the Red Sox reach the postseason again, and enjoyed another monster LCS (1.008 OPS), but it was not enough as the Sox were outdone by the Rays in seven games.

Statistically, 2009 was just as good for Youkilis, who posted a .961 OPS and was worth 6.6 bWAR while making the All-Star team again and finishing sixth in the MVP polling. He was on track for similarly great numbers in 2010 when a torn abductor muscle in his right thumb ended his season at the beginning of August. The injury effectively marked the end of Youk's brief reign as one of the best players in baseball.

The final year of Youk's career were frustrating and tumultuous (CBSSports)
His career started heading south in 2011, his last full season with the Sox. He moved back to third base to accommodate Adrian Gonzalez but the position change likely did more harm than good, as Youkilis was again plagued by injuries during the second half. He missed 42 games in all and appeared in just 22 from August 1st on, batting a reduced .190 over that time. Had he been able to stay healthy or hit more effectively down the stretch, Boston likely would have won at least one more game and thus been spared the humiliation of its great September collapse.

In the wake of said meltdown, Youkilis lost the trust of his teammates due to suspicion that he had leaked the chicken and beer information to the press. 2012 quickly turned out to be a nightmare for him and the team, as he got off to a slow start, had his effort questioned by new manager Bobby Valentine, and spent more time on the Disabled List. In his absence rookie call-up Will Middlebrooks excelled, making Youkilis expendable in the eyes of the organization and giving them a convenient excuse to trade him away. Ben Cherington did just that, dealing Youkilis for two nobodies in return. In a fitting finale, Youkilis had two hits, including a triple, in the last game he ever played for the Red Sox.

He moved on to Chicago, where he hit better with the White Sox but not well enough to convince anybody that his glory days were coming back. That led to his signing a one-year deal with the Yankees, which turned out to be a huge bust when he got hurt yet again and appeared in just 28 games. Nobody wanted him when his contract expired, and he took off for Japan.

The end came hard and fast for Youkilis, as it does for many athletes in their early 30s. Youk was an All-Star at 32, cast-off at 33, and done at 34. It wasn't surprising he tailed off so fast given his physique and unmatched intensity. Nobody played the game harder or with more passion than Youkilis, and like a shooting star he burned out quickly. Injuries took their toll as well, but he was a great player when he did play and had a Hall of Fame peak, even if it was short-lived (three years). Though he didn't play much (barely 1,000 games) or for very long, he accomplished a hell of a lot during his all-too-brief career.

And he did it with one of the most unorthodox batting stances I've ever seen.

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