Kevin Youkilis and the Curious Case of Selective Aggression

Evan BrunellFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2009

In Kevin Youkilis' recent Q&A with MVN's The Bottom Line, I found one particular answer particularly interesting.  
For someone who has been given the moniker "the Greek God of Walks" and seemingly backed it up with a superior batting eye and tremendous patience at the plate, Kevin Youkilis accounted some of his success in 2008, specifically in the power department to being more aggressive at the plate.
This past season was full of career bests for you: .312 BA, 29 HR, 115 RBI... but your numbers have typically faded in the second half. Did you do something different in the pre-season or during the season this year to make sure you didn't "burn out."
I didn't do anything different, but just didn't have any of the little, nagging injuries that I'd had to play through in the past. I work hard every off-season to be in the best possible shape, and just was able to carry it through the season a little better last year. Plus, I was a little more aggressive in certain counts and game situations, and that helped my power and productivity numbers.
But let's not just take Youk's word for it.  As we are wont to do, let's dig a little deeper and see if the statistics back up his self assessment.
Youkilis has long been one of the most selective hitters in baseball, consistently in the top ten pitches per plate appearance year after year with a career average of  4.30 P/PA.  There is no doubt that Youkilis is patient.  At the same time, he's also of very keen eye only swinging at 17.7% of pitches out of the strike zone over his career.
With a selective eye and unwavering patience, Youkilis was living up to his now famous moniker, walking 91 times in 2006, good for seventh in the American League.  At the same time however, it was apparent that Youk's approach at the plate considered a walk to be as good an outcome as a hit.  This was what he built his reputation around right?
In a 2005 interview with Ben Jacobs at The Hardball Times Youkilis would put walking in this context;
"Getting walks is something that is challenging the pitcher, or just being smart and selective at the plate. I think that's one of the attributes of walking, is going up there and being able to hit certain pitches.

You get to be a good hitter before you get a lot of walks, that's the way I see it. You take a lot of pitches. You can be smart and selective at the plate, and that helps attribute to walks."
One thing that Youkilis wasn't known as out of the gate was a "power hitter".  In "Moneyball" he would be first described as "a fat third baseman who couldn't run, throw, or field."  My, how first impressions can be misleading.
Could Youkilis' 29 home runs and .569 SLG, good for third in the American League, really be a result of wielding his batting eye and ability to make contact more aggressively?
The stats do in fact bear out that Youkilis was more aggressive at the plate as measured purely by percentage of swings at pitches both in and out of the strike zone.  Compared with 39.5% in 2007 and only 36.7% of pitches swung at in 2006, Youkilis took a rip at 42.4% of the pitches thrown his way in 2008.
Another way to look at this is that his pitches per plate appearance fell to 4.02 and out of the top 30 in baseball in that category.  Did his eye get worse?  No, he got more aggressive.  But aggressive plate behavior in and of itself isn't necessarily positive.  Its when you take those swings and what you do with them that matters.
The most important thing was that Youkilis did this while increasing his contact rate across the board,  82.7% of his 2007 swings resulted in contact compared with 83.7% in 2008.  He was swinging more, but he was in control using his gifted batting eye to swing at pitches that he could drive.
So was 2008 a fluke or will Kevin Youkilis' adaptations at the plate bear more fruit in 2009?  That is a question for another day.  Starting next week, I'll be bringing back my "For Better or Worse" column as we dig into each player's 2008 and ask one simple question.  Will he be better or worse in 2009?
From that simple yes or no, we can aggregate a point of view across the entire roster of either (a) unbridled optimism for the upcoming season (Sean O.  I'll name you the captain of this camp) or (b) desperate pessimism (Gerry.  This one's all you).