Kevin Youkilis could swing the bat. In 10 big league seasons, the player immortalized in book and movie form as “The Greek God of Walks” logged a .281/.382/.478 slash line and a 127 wRC+. At his peak, he was one of the best hitters in the American League. From 2008-10, Youkilis averaged 25 home runs annually while putting up a .308 batting average and a 150 wRC+. Over that three-year stretch with the Boston Red Sox, he walked 197 times and stroked 429 base hits.
In the latest installment of our Talks Hitting series, Youkilis — now a part-time analyst on Red Sox TV broadcasts — discussed the art and science of what he did best: squaring up baseballs.
David Laurila: Let’s start with the nickname you got early in your career. Looking back, what do you think of it?
Kevin Youkilis: “It was interesting more than anything. It’s not something I equated to. I saw myself as a hitter, and the walks just a byproduct of not getting good pitches. Part of the game is that you walk if you don’t get pitches to hit.
“At the beginning, it was a lot of… it was kind of crazy. There were all these media-driven things coming my way. That was the hardest part. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ It was all fixed on walking, versus the other things I did well.”
Laura: You did draw walks, but it was never a ton of walks.
Youkilis: “Yes, it wasn’t an insane amount. It was really only that first year, when I had 70 in short-season ball. And guys were wild. They just don’t throw strikes at the lowest levels of the minors. So, it was just one of those things that was hyped up. It was in a book. From there, it became a phenomenon.”
Laura: Which of your stats did you most care about?
Youkilis: “Average was always big for me. I knew that if my average was high, my on-base percentage would be high. I think that was the key. People don’t seem to talk about that. Average is a big part of on-base percentage. Somehow we’ve flip-flopped that. Maybe it’s the Adam Dunn effect, in some ways.”
Laura: When I wrote about Luis Arraez one day winning a batting title, Rocco Baldelli was quoted as saying that players care, and should care, about batting average.
Youkilis: “It’s a weird phenomenon in that… I think it’s something analytically driven that’s gone into the media aspect of it. Players really care about their batting average. No one wants to hit .195. Guys want to hit .300. If they hit .250, they want to hit .275. As a hitter, you go up there and try to get hits. Your focus is hitting the ball and having a really cool result. Whether it’s a single, a double, a triple, or a home run, there’s a euphoria. Hitters love getting hits.
“Walks are a byproduct of not getting pitches, or you’re fouling off tough pitches and having a good at-bat; you’re working the count. Some people who have never played the game fixate on walks so much that they don’t realize every hitter goes up to the plate thinking ‘hit.’ And you have to think ‘hit.’ You see the ball, and then you react.”
Laura: That said, batters get in trouble when they chase hits…
Youkilis: “Correct. When you try to chase home runs, when you try to chase hits, bad things happen. Conversely, when you go up there and have a good focus, and your swing path feels good that day, good things happen. You might be looking for certain pitches. Maybe it’s, ‘I’m going to let him throw it outside — that’s totally cool — but if I get a pitch in the inner half, I’m going to do some damage.’ Or maybe you need to be focused on taking something back through the middle. Those thought processes are aspects of good hitting.”
Laura: What was your primary thought process?
Youkilis: “I always looked fastball, because I never wanted to let a good fastball go to waste. But the approach is always based on the pitcher. What you do well matters, but you have to focus on what they do and how they’re going to pitch you. You have to figure out how that fits your strengths and your weaknesses. You also don’t want to swing at his strengths. You want to wait for him to make a mistake.”
Laura: What was your weakness?
Youkilis: “My weakness was probably a lefty slider down and in. Those back-foot sliders were always tough. When a guy had a really good one… for instance, Scott Kazmir really gave me struggles with that. Hard sliders going down and away from a righty were always tough ones, too. I don’t think any right-handed hitter is happy with those. You just need to figure out how to hit them.”
Laura: How often did you see the short, sharp sliders that a lot of pitchers have these days?
Youkilis: “The cement mixers, as we used to call them? Those really hard ones that just tilt a little bit? Yeah, I mean… I always say this: The game has changed, but it seems like everyone wants to make it like the game has changed dramatically. I don’t think it has. It’s just that the velo has increased a little bit, which makes pitches increase in sharpness. But there were guys I faced who threw 100 mph. They had nasty pitches, as well.
“As the game evolves, the players have to evolve. Before I played, hitters didn’t see 95 a lot. We saw 95 a lot, and now that 95 is 98 to 100. So it is different. And I also think we’re seeing more backwards pitching now. Guys are seeing sliders in hitter’s counts. There are a lot more breaking balls in general.”
Laura: And a lot more elevated fastballs…
Youkilis: “That’s the big one.”
Laura: Was your swing conducive to hitting that pitch?
Youkilis: “I think it was. I learned how to be short and direct to the ball up top. Rafael Betancourt was a guy who threw elevated fastballs back then. He was with Cleveland, and he was the type of pitcher that would try to elevate his heaters and make you swing and miss, or pop it up. If you know it’s coming in the top of the zone, you have to dictate your swing to that. You can’t be long, and getting down into the swing, like you can on a ball that’s sinking.
“I was trying to hit lines all over the field. I was trying to make the shortstop and the second baseman jump. That was my key, trying to hit balls that would get good carry into the gaps. I wanted balls to stay pure, as opposed to hooking. When you stay in the middle of the field and have that good, positive spin off the bat — there’s kind of a baby fade to it — that’s when you know you’re staying through the ball. You’re staying connected. Then, when you get the breaking ball, you’re able to hook it effectively.
“Trevor Story did that great the other day. He would get those curveballs, and he could hook them because he was staying through on the fastball. It was just that little flick, getting to an extension, and getting out and around it. Breaking balls you can hit really far that way.”
Laura: You played with Manny Ramirez, who is obviously one of the best hitters in recent generations. One thing Manny was known for was setting up pitchers.
Youkilis: “He did a really good job of that. I couldn’t do what he did. I mean, he was so secure with taking three fastballs down the middle in his first at-bat, then getting a curveball in his second at-bat and hitting a homer. I couldn’t let three fastballs go by, down the middle. That would just eat me up. I would be so mad at myself if I let that happen.
“One thing with Manny was how he kept his hands inside of his body, in close. He was one of the best at that. He could take a fastball inside, at 94, and hit it out to right-center field. Most guys can’t do that; they have to go more pull-side, or to center, with that pitch.
“Learning how to get to a good hitting position, and keeping your hands close to your body, is the thing I most learned from Manny. I couldn’t do what he did — not to the same degree — but I did learn how to stay through the ball a lot better and utilize the entire field. I think I did that pretty well.”
Laura: And if the pitcher didn’t throw strikes, you’d take a walk…
Youkilis: “I would. But I was up there to hit.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis , Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, Tim Hyers, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Brent Rooker, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Luke Voit, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke.