One of my favorites got traded to the White Sox yesterday for Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart. It's weird to think that this deal seems about right for a guy that's been a centerpiece of a winning team for the better part of the last decade. But, as anyone who watched Youk and thought about him critically could have predicted, when he fell, he fell fast. He will be missed.
Youk's precipitous downfall was predictable for a couple of reasons. First of all, his career high for games played in a Major League season was 147 in 2006 when he was 27. In his six full seasons in the Majors*, Youk topped 140 games three times and averaged 132 games played. He's now 33 and every year for the rest of his career, he will probably miss significant time with injuries.
The second reason that one could have seen this coming is looking at Youkilis's famous swing. The way in which he caresses the barrel of the bat in his stance is talked about a lot. But that stuff's fine. The bad part is looking his actual swing.
There are just so many parts to it. The bat does spend a lot of time in the zone, but it takes a lot of effort to get there (please note that I am not a baseball coach and am approaching this as a fan and a person who played baseball as a kid but wasn't a particularly good hitter). You can see that he takes the bat from over his head into a hitch and THEN puts his hands back in a position to hit as the pitch is coming. That bat has to travel a long way in a very short amount of time. Also, his feet are very close together and he has to make a pretty big step to put his swing on line. This makes him slightly off balance basically until the moment the ball is coming at him. Any Little League coach would try to get a kid to stop doing these things, but if you're a Major League-caliber player with Major League-caliber hands, you can get away with this. But just because you can get away with it doesn't mean you should do it.
Basically, there's a ton of movement in that swing. It is not effortless, and there are a bunch of little pieces that make it all work. If one of these parts is late or starts sliding because Youk loses strength or quickness, the whole swing will suffer considerably. His power has essentially evaporated (from 2008 to 2010, he suddenly had a good amount of power), and his BABIP has free-fallen. His BABIP over his five full years before 2011 was .336 (really high), but the last two years it has fallen to .294. When he gets the ball in play, he's much less effective. This decline sort of came all of a sudden in the latter part of 2011, and I think his complicated swing lent itself to such a quick and dramatic fall.
Coaches should have fixed that when they had the chance. The swing worked for a while, but they should've seen this coming. Youk probably could've had a few more very productive years if his swing had been simplified and streamlined. It's a shame that his Red Sox career is over, and that the Red Sox couldn't get much for him. I'll miss him and I'll wonder what could have been for an incredibly smart and disciplined hitter who put it all together for only about three years.
*Six?!?!?! Seems low, but he played a significant amount in 2004 and 2005 though not full seasons.