Commentary

Kevin Youkilis moves to new corner

Infielder's versatility helped shape Boston's blockbuster offseason

Updated: February 17, 2011, 12:03 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's called OPS-plus (or OPS+), and yes, at first it may be a little intimidating, one of those egghead stats that curmudgeons disparage as cluttering up the game.

But it's actually a lot simpler than it sounds, and it is quite revealing. It just takes OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) one step further, adjusting it for park and league average. An OPS+ of 100 is an average big leaguer; anything above 125+ is considered very good.

Over the span of the last three seasons, Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis had an OPS+ of 147, the same as Joe Mauer, the 2009 American League MVP.

There were five players (minimum 1,200 plate appearances) who scored higher: Albert Pujols (184), a three-time National League MVP; Manny Ramirez (156), winding down a Hall of Fame career; Joey Votto (152), the 2010 NL MVP; Adrian Gonzalez (151), a three-time All-Star playing in the Death Valley of all ballparks, San Diego's Petco Park; and Miguel Cabrera (150), the 2010 AL MVP runner-up.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalish and Kevin Youkilis
Gordon Edes/ESPNBoston.comKevin Youkilis has settled in as one of the game's top hitters. Now he's moving from first back to third. "As you get older, you get more comfortable with yourself fielding," said Youkilis, 31. "I'm more comfortable now than I was when I was 24, 25."

Pretty good company. Youkilis' career OPS+ is 128, the same as Jim Rice, a Hall of Famer, and one point behind Carl Yastrzemski, another Hall of Famer. And he has plenty of time to move up the leaderboard, though the all-time Sox leader, Ted Williams (190), is unreachable.

What's the point? That the bearded Youkilis, who was not drafted until after his senior year at the University of Cincinnati and lasted until the eighth round, is a pretty fair country hitter, one that belongs in any discussion of the game's best batsmen. As much as Gonzalez and Carl Crawford will bring to the Sox offense, Youkilis remains a vital bat in the middle of the Boston order.

And his ability -- and willingness -- to cross the diamond from first to third base, at a point in his career where the reverse migration is the norm, may stand as the most important assets Theo Epstein had in assembling a championship-caliber team this winter.

Without that versatility and mindset, trading for Gonzalez would have been nonnegotiable.

But here was Youkilis, sitting in front of his locker Tuesday, casually talking about shifting back to third base as if he were changing shirts.

"I'm going out there and taking ground balls, getting used to all the things that come with third base," he said. "Spring training is a good time to take a lot of reps and get it down. That's a little better than coming in the middle of the season after playing first base. I'll have a lot of time to work with [coach] Tim Bogar and get things straight."

Youkilis was a Gold Glove first baseman, one who set major league records for consecutive errorless games and errorless chances handled at the position. A powerful incentive to maintain the status quo, no?

Instead, Youkilis was asking reporters who was the third base equivalent of Stuffy McInnis, the former Sox first baseman whose record for errorless chances Youkilis broke. (The Sox record for consecutive errorless games by a third baseman, 77, and chances, 232, are held by Rico Petrocelli.)

"Some stuff, like charging the ball a little more, you get used to that right away," Youkilis said of going back to third. "It just comes naturally. When you play the position, you can't sit back. When playing first base, you get a little lazy. Third base, you're prepared.

"Accuracy is a pretty good trait of mine. I don't have an Adrian Beltre arm, but I try to get rid of the ball as quick as possible. I think arm angles are the biggest thing. You have to work on keeping your arm strong by doing your shoulder program."

Youkilis refutes the notion, however, that playing first base is the far easier task.

"First base is demanding in a lot of ways," he said. "People don't understand how much the body takes when you're holding on runners, shuffling, every time a ground ball is hit you've got to run to first base, get in position. Third base, there are games you don't get a ball hit to you.

"Yeah, you have to be a better fielder, get your body in better position to make the play and throw. Other than that, I really think first base is kind of overlooked."

Youkilis, who turns 32 in March, said that being older might actually aid his switch back to third.

"As you get older, you get more comfortable with yourself fielding," he said. "That's kind of a positive. I'm more comfortable now than I was when I was 24, 25. Actually, with old age it might be a blessing.

"I don't worry what critics are saying about how I'm playing third base. I know I'm going to make errors. Third base probably has the highest rate of errors of any position. I just want to make the plays and not make mental errors.

"You're going to get bad hops, you're going to make a [bad] throw here or there. Yeah, it'd be cool if I could play just as well at third base and try to win a Gold Glove. ... But I'm not worried about the accolades. I'm more worried about making the routine plays, and make great plays here and there to get our pitchers out of jams."

Youkilis played in just 102 games last season, none after tearing the adductor muscle in his right thumb and undergoing surgery Aug. 6. Had the Sox qualified for the postseason, Youkilis believes he would have been able to play.

The hardest part about being out, he said, was the boredom.

"Watching baseball, like I've always said, is not fun," said Youkilis, whose words are not likely to be the centerpiece of a Sox ad campaign anytime soon. "It was mainly boring to sit and watch baseball. I'll never be a manager or major league coach. I don't think I could do anything where I have to watch 162 games a year. Maybe 16 football games."

Beyond that, he said, the forced absence was not quite the ordeal some might imagine.

"It was definitely hard not to play," he said, "but actually I was very positive about the thing, open-minded in a lot of ways. One thing I wasn't going to do was come to the field and mope -- 'I'm injured, poor me.'

"It's not 'poor me.' I have a job. I get paid a lot of money. My injury wasn't life-threatening for me, it wasn't career-threatening. That's the biggest thing. There was a lot to look forward to. You've just got to wait and take your time. You've got to help your teammates out, helping the young guys as much as I could."

Youkilis already has engaged Gonzalez, the man displacing him at first base.

"I've talked to him a little bit, thrown to him, interacted, discussed things," he said. "He's a great guy. He's going to bring a great presence to this team. He's very calm, and he's just one of those guys who's going to do it on the field.

"We've talked a little bit about hitting, what he looks for from pitchers. It's pretty interesting to hear his philosophy on how he hits, how he approaches at-bats. It's fun to understand a great hitter's mindset. Every hitter has a mindset and different ways to go about it. It's always cool to learn from guys."

Youkilis did learn something from Gonzalez that surprised him.

"Adrian informed me that he's slower than Victor Martinez," Youkilis said. "I don't think that's true. There's no way he can be slower than Victor Martinez."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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