By In Stuff


Kevin Youkilis’ entire career has been built around
not making outs. (Getty Images)

A few people have suggested over the years that the most telling offensive statistic in baseball might be something called “out percentage.” I think that’s a pretty good idea. It’s not really a new statistic. It’s just on-base percentage turned inside out, but sometimes it’s a good idea to look at something from a different perspective. The magnificent writer Gay Talese used to write out a sentence in big block letters, hang the sentence on his office wall, and then go to the other side of the room and look at it through binoculars.

Out percentage answers a clear question: What percentage of the time does a hitter make an out? That’s all. Outs are the sands of time in baseball. You know this. You get 27 of them in a nine-inning game. You will lose some of them by strikeout, some by groundout, some by flyout. You will lose two of them at a time in double plays. You will surrender some of them moving a teammate a single base or scoring them from third base. You will forfeit some outs trying to get an extra base for yourself.

Through the years, it has always been the role of baseball analysts to tell us something about a hitter’s personality. This player is a clutch hitter, meaning he hits better when the situation demands it. This player is not a clutch hitter, meaning he shrinks when the team needs a hit most. This player is a run producer, meaning he has a distinct ability to score the runners already on base. This player is a table setter, meaning he has distinct ability to be one of those runners on base when the run producers come up. This player is a great teammate, meaning he is skilled at bunting and hitting behind runners and doing those “little things that don’t show up in the box score.” And so on. And so on.

And I’m not here today to argue with those labels and clichés. I’m just saying that there’s something about out percentage that cuts through all that, something base and blatant and beyond banality*. I’m just saying that when you talk about something as simple as how often you make an out there’s no tag to hide behind, no glory blanket to wrap up in, no well-timed hits to overvalue. What percentage of the time do you make an out? It’s simple and it’s naked.

*How about that series of Bs? My daughter had to do several alliteration poems for her class, and I’m still stuck on that.

And this bluntness is why I love Kevin Youkilis as a player.

His whole career, certainly as a hitter, has been built on one rule: Do not make outs.

Youkilis was not the kind of player who impressed anybody. This was true from the start. Out of high school in Cincinnati, he would say, two schools were willing to give him a chance: Butler and the hometown University of Cincinnati. UC was a terrible team at the time, and Youk recruited the school as much as the school recruited him (his hero Sandy Koufax went to UC and so did his dad). Youkilis couldn’t run, didn’t seem to have great power, wasn’t much of a fielder, he didn’t have a classic baseball body (to say the least) and he had this funky-looking crouch and swing that suggested uncertainty about the purpose of hitting. But people just did not understand that Youk had a plan. And he did not make outs.

He was a star at UC — he hit .368 with some power and basically did not make outs half the time he came to the plate. The pro scouts yawned. He was not drafted after his junior season. He was taken in the eighth round in his senior season and signed for $12,000 — much to the chagrin of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane who probably was ahead of the curve on the whole “don’t make outs” concept. Beane told Michael Lewis in Moneyball that even though the Red Sox would not trade Youkilis, Beane was sure that Boston did not realize or appreciate what they had.

What they had was a smart baseball player who was driven to be a major league baseball player no matter how many people told him he was wasting his time. The A’s management dubbed Youkilis “The Greek God of Walks” because he walked 73 times in 64 games his first year in the minors, then walked 93 times his second year and 104 times his third year. But, in some ways, looking at Youkilis’ walks underrated his motivation and zeal and talent. The guy did not make outs. He was hit by 21 pitches his second season in the minors and 18 more his third season. He did not ground into many double plays. He hit for a pretty high average — the power would come later — but Youkilis as much as any player of his time reduced the game of hitting to its simplest form. If he made an out, the pitcher won. If he did not make an out, he won. That’s it.

How can you not love this quote he gave Gordon Edes in 2006: “Fighting off pitching, fouling off pitches, laying off pitches, making it so the opposing pitcher can’t breathe, that’s my job.”

He got a bit of fame out of Moneyball — fame that, from what I can tell, he disliked — but it probably did help him get to the big leagues. Players like Youkilis who do not offer instant speed or power or superb defense at a key spot often wallow in the minors. But Moneyball made on-base percentage a little bit sexier, and Youkilis was called up in 2004 at age 25, in time to help the Red Sox won their first World Series in a billion-jillion-shmillion years. He went back to the minors in 2005 — he had broken his toe in spring training — and he was pretty good in 2006.

Here’s a great quote about Youkilis from that story Edes wrote, this from a “rival GM:” “He’s an interesting guy but he’s not a guy that I say, ‘Man, I wish we had him on our team.’” Which means that even by 2006, people did not realize just how good Youkilis would be over the next five or so years. His fate in life was to be underrated. In 2007, he won a Gold Glove as a first baseman — his defense was a huge surprise — and he was 10th in the league in out percentage. He made an out 62 percent of the time — almost exactly the same percentage as much higher profile players, such as Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki.

In 2008, Youkilis was fifth in the league in out percentage (again, 62 percent). His power numbers jumped significantly and his batting average was .312 and so suddenly he became celebrated — he finished third in the MVP voting. In 2009, he had the second-lowest out percentage in the American League behind the league MVP Joe Mauer. In 2010, Youkilis was hurt quite a lot so he did not have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. But in 435 plate appearances, he had the lowest out percentage in baseball.

Of course, Youkilis was a hero in Boston,  and should be a hero forever. He was noticeable — with that cool name, with that odd batting style, with the way his finger danced on the bat that dangled over his head. He was at the heart of two World Series championships in a city and region of people who wondered for decades if they would live to see one. He was edgy and irritating and a force of will who inspired loyalty in teammates and rage in opponents; he was as loved by hometown fans as he was despised on the road. He dedicated a lot of his time to helping kids and he quietly held to his faith and he played hard even as his body deteriorated.

And he did not make outs. This is the beautiful think about Youk. He has stayed true to that mission of fighting off pitches, fouling off pitches, laying off pitches; every at-bat has been a fight, a brawl, a chance that would not come again. Baseball is a long season, we all know that. And players have good days and bad, hurt days and healthy ones, muggy days and cool ones. The percentage difference between minor leaguer and big leaguer is tiny. The percentage difference between role player and regular player is even smaller. The difference between good player and excellent player is smaller still.

Where do those differences come from? Talent, sure. Work ethic, sure. Desire? Passion? Hunger? Grit? I don’t know, I suspect those words are for us sports writers. Maybe part of the difference comes from that little bit of extra concentration, the tiniest bit of sharpness that gets a player to lay off that pitch just off the plate, the patience that pushes a player to watch video and catch a tiny inconsistency in the pitcher’s delivery, the awareness that allows him to see that the third baseman is playing back or the second baseman is just a foot out of position. Whatever it is, Kevin Youkilis as much as anybody of his time made himself a great player by finding that tiny edge.

Youkilis was traded to the White Sox on Sunday, of course, and there’s no telling his future. He’s 33 and beat up — he has never played 150 games in a season, and I suspect he never will. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, he’s hitting .251, and even though he has still found ways to not make outs, the question of whether his body will allow him to be an every day player again is an open-ended one.

But, it wouldn’t be right to underestimate Youk. Not after all the times he’s been underestimated before. Chicago is a good hitters park, a change of scenery gives him new motivation, and you never know.

I’ve read in story after story that Boston had to trade him, and I guess I can see that; baseball, like all sports and businesses, are inevitably harsh and unsentimental. Careers end, and usually not in glory. But then, there’s glory afterward. Boston is a place like most American places that adores its old heroes. If Youkilis adds another chapter in Chicago, that will be great. If not, hey, it’s been a blast. There has been plenty of glory, and plenty of joy. Think how many times Kevin Youkilis came up in Boston, and fans shouted. “They’re not booing,” an announcer would inevitably say. “They’re saying Youk.”

45 Responses to Youk

  1. David in NYC says:

    Got to agree with Youk on not making outs. It is the single most important thing a batter can do.

    The rules count only two things in determining the outcome of a baseball game: runs and outs. Clearly, making more of the former requires making fewer of the latter. I cannot for the life of me figure out why that isn’t obvious to most baseball commentators.

  2. njwv says:

    I’ve long been convinced that if OBP had been called out-percentage from day 1, the fight to make people aware of its importance would not have been nearly as hard.

    • Ryan Brooks says:

      I think one problem is that people tend to want to see higher mean better for batters. With the exception of ERA/WHIP and a few similar pitching stats (which people can wrap their head around as “run prevention”), higher is usually better. Most people, even very smart people, like “up and to the right.”

      Similarly, people talk about base stealers having SB%, and catchers having CS%.

    • The Goche says:

      Back and to the left, back and to the left, back and to the left.

  3. Mark Daniel says:

    Word is that Youk wasn’t particularly fond of being a backup on Boston. Perhaps the same characteristics that made him such a difficult hitter to get out made him an unbearable presence in the clubhouse.
    I don’t know if any of the rumors out of Boston are true, but considering they paid to get rid of Youk and aren’t any better with what they got in return, it kinda makes sense.

  4. B.E. Earl says:

    It’s amazing that Boston is able to trade a player like Youk to make way for a talent like Middlebrooks (if that was the only reason), yet a team like the Royals can’t pull the trigger to trade or dump Frenchy to make room for Wil Myers.

    • Jay Lu says:

      Bit of a difference in situation between the two teams. For Boston, it might mean the difference in capturing a playoff spot. If the Royals brought up Meyers now, all they’re doing is wasting a pre-arb year, since they’re not going anywhere with or without him, at least this year.

    • Tampa Mike says:

      First off, The Red Sox can afford to dump a player and take the financial hit. The Royals can’t afford to give away money.

      Secondly, Middlesbrooks is 23, Myers is only 21. Those are crucial years in development. Myers has only been in AAA for 37 games and you don’t want to rush him up before he is ready. You only make a move like that if it makes sense.

    • The Royals have tons of money. David Glass refuses to spend it.

  5. As much as I am a big fan of Joe, I find it funny how he talks out of both sides of his mouth in this one, first mocking those who are imprecise about a player’s talents when they say that a guy is clutch or unclutch or scrappy or whatever based on anecdotal evidence, but then is himself just as imprecise and just as anecdotal when saying “the guy DID NOT MAKE OUTS”

    Of course Youkilis made outs: he’s done it 61.2% of his time in the majors as I write.

    I don’t mean to quibble; obviously Joe has to write *something*, and he has to make it entertaining as well. My point is, I guess, so do the guys whose hyperbole he makes fun of.

    • Your says:

      Pretty sure you missed the point. Clutch and Scrappy are subjective crap. Not making outs is simple statistical fact. If you’re on base nearly 40% of the time in a career, that’s good.

    • Rob says:

      If someone is in the top 10 in the league with a 61% out percentage, how is that anecdotal? That’s the opposite of anecdotal. It’s a statistic, not a story. It can’t be argued with except by no nothings.

    • Neither Your nor Rob understood my point, while I indeed understood Joe’s. And it’s “know-nothings.”

      The anecdotal bit I refer to in Joe’s piece is not that uses the concept of making outs but that he exaggerates Youk’s rate, from 61% to ALL.

      And my point since it needs to be explained is that while we may have numbers that reveal the deeper truths about the sports, writers and broadcasters through the tools they use–imprecise words, and words, further, that are often more entertaining when they are less truthful–are a little bit handicapped.

      Do you understand how Joe used hyperbole, a figure of speech, that isn’t, you know, strictly true–Youk DOES. NOT. MAKE. OUTS.–and how it made his point in an illustrative and entertaining way?

      Do you also see that, ironically, broadcasters do the same thing (though perhaps to a greater degree) when they talk about clutch, etc?

      That was my point, and reading I don’t think I was all that opaque about it either.

      My point was NOT saying anything about the validity of OBP as a way of talking about a ballplayer’s talents.

      Nothing wrong with being focused on the numbers. But why are so many who are, so galdanged eager to take offense?

    • clashfan says:

      Not sure anyone took offense so much as disagreed with your statement. I didn’t see any insults hurled your way.

      Hyperbole is a rhetorical tool used to make or embellish a point. It’s not ‘anecdotal’ as you claimed. No one actually believes that Youk’s career OBP is 1.000.

      When uneducated broadcasters talk about ‘scrappiness’ or ‘clutch’ as if those terms meant something, or were even accurate, that is a different thing. That you don’t understand this is disappointing.

  6. Your says:

    Thanks Joe, you always do your subject justice. I’ll watch as many White Sox games as I can from here on out and root for Youk.

  7. Ever since I read MoneyBall, I’ve wanted this guy on my team. I don’t know why others would feel differently. Youk has been a premium player at first and third, where you need a premium player. I despise the White Sox, but I still hope Youk has a resurgence in Chicago. I wonder why the A’s didn’t trade for him, though. They don’t have much happening at either corner or DH.

  8. Mark Daniel says:

    For a few years there, I used to think the Red Sox had some top tier talent in the form of Youk and JD Drew. They were both similar offensively for about 3 years, but Youk became wildly popular while at best people were lukewarm about Drew even when he was red hot.

    Clearly attitude, or perhaps the perception of a players attitude, played a role in is. Youk really cared about winning and playing hard. Drew, seemingly, did not. And the appreciation of each player by fans evolved accordingly. And that’s despite the fact that both players were similar, right down to the inability to play a full season.

    • Rob says:

      It’s a good point. JD Drew had a very high OBP, but missed a lot of games (like Youkilis). Drew had the “feel” of an extremely talented player who didn’t give crap. While Youkilis had the “feel” of an untalented player who just somehow made it happen. I’ll bet a lot of it had to do with the way they look. JD Drew looked like a stud, while Youkilis looked like Joe Six Pack.

  9. Wm. Don says:

    My all time favorite baseball quote concerns Youk… as the story goes, someone mentioned to Terry Francona that Kevin Youkilis was referred to as the “Greek God of Walks” in Moneyball. Francona’s response?

    “I’ve seen him in the shower – that guy isn’t the Greek god of anything.”

  10. bluwood says:

    Love (most of) the article, but I hate the statement that Youk was the “at the heart of two World Series championships” (this bothers me because this sentiment is not only coming from Joe, but many other writers). No, he was at the heart of one, in 2007. In 2004, he had two at bats in the post season.

    Oh, and for the record, he made outs in 100% of those at bats.

    • Agree whole-heartedly. He wasn’t even on the ALCS or World Series rosters in 2004 and had a 99 OPS+ in 72 games as a back-up type guy.

      I love Youk and will miss him, but I understand why the Red Sox did what they did. He certainly has looked about cooked since last year’s all-star game or so.

  11. dust says:

    Would Youkilis make the all-time “not making outs” team? Someone look that up and make a team. I’m guessing it’d be scary.

    • Rob says:

      Well, you’d end up with guys like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds on this team…. so it wouldn’t be all that interesting. The top HOFers didn’t make outs, which should be fairly obvious. It only becomes interesting when non HOFers quietly just get on base. That was the allure of MoneyBall…. finding the guys that were under appreciated because they didn’t look good. Youkilis is the classic example of that.

    • TROLL says:

      A quick look at Baseball Reference shows 30 players not in the Hall of Fame with an out % below .600 (OBP .400+)

      In order: Barry Bonds, Bill Joyce, Ferris Fain, Max Bishop, Joe Jackson, Todd Helton, Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, Albert Pujols, Cupis Childs, Roy Thomas, Lefty O’Doul, Manny Ramirez, Charlie Keller, Eddie Stanky, Lance Berkman, Roy Cullenbine, Jake Stenzel, Jeff Bagwell, Denny Lyons, Riggs Stephenson, Joe Harris, Joe Mauer, Jason Giambi, Joe Cunningham, Pete Browning, Jime Thome, Chipper Jones, Larry Walker, and Bill Lang

      I got grit in my teeth just typing that list.

    • David in NYC says:

      Yeah, can you *believe* that? How could the HoF not include players like Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman, Joe Mauer, Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, and Chipper Jones? I smell a conspiracy!

      Or maybe it’s just because they aren’t eligible and have never been voted on.

      And since you don’t indicate any criteria for making your list, other than non-HoF membership and OBP over .400, I can’t believe you left out Terry Forster, owner of the highest career batting average in MLB history for any player with at least 50 PAs.

    • TROLL says:

      criteria were Baseball reference’s, not mine. Perhaps I left the active and ineligible players in for context. Why didn’t you add Joe Jackson? Or for that matter, Bill Joyce, Ferris Fain Jake Stenzel and Bill Lange? They aren’t eligible either. The list was to show Rob’s comment didn’t have to be taken as gospel. An interesting list can be assembled.

      And I’m known as the Troll.

      btw, I inadvertently left off Lu Blue.

    • Rob says:

      It’s kind of a non sequitor if you put out a list with ineligible players. However, had you limited your list to eligible players and analyzed, you would see why they didn’t make the HOF.
      *Lefty O’Doul was a pitcher who converted to a position player and spent several years in the minors. He therefore only had about six full (excellent) seasons in the majors (full meaning playing most of the games that year).
      *Charlie Keller also had six full seasons. He was great as a young player, but fizzled out… probably because of injury, I’m not sure.
      *Eddie Stanky is a little more interesting. His relatively low batting average wasn’t that low by Shortstop standards and his OBP certainly would help him these days. Still, he had only an 11 year career since he didn’t break into the bigs until age 27.
      *Pete Browning was pre-1900, so I don’t know how to parse his stats. Big numbers, but a very different era.
      *Riggs Stephenson had some big numbers in the live ball era. But his lifetime WAR, which factors out the era, was only 30.

      That’s all I have time for. If you seriously think someone on this list was ripped off… go ahead and make the case. But the reason most of these guys didn’t make the HOF wasn’t because people didn’t pay attention to OBP. There were other factors in play. The one exception might be Eddie Stanky. His OBP should have cast a more positive light on his offensive capabilities.

  12. Mark Coale says:

    “The magnificent writer Gay Talese used to write out a sentence in big block letters, hang the sentence on his office wall, and then go to the other side of the room and look at it through binoculars.”

    This seems like a scene out of a Wes Anderson movie*.

    * Moonrise Kingdom is a very good picture.

  13. dzfg says:

    The thing that always bugged me about Youk is that he comes off so angry all the time. Cheer up man, you get paid millions of dollars to play baseball. Smile once in a while.

  14. Jim Wexler says:


    Worth mentioning that Youk is basically tied with Big Papi in leading the Sox in WAR since 2004 at 30 or so. Few would equate them and Youk is paid much less. I am certain he will rock in Chicago for a while before the wheels come off.

    • Rob says:

      The issue is that the wheels appear have been coming off for about a year. I call this Andruw Jones disease. The wheels were obviously off for at least a year before the Dodgers signed him to a ridiculous contact. The same was true of Dontrelle Willis, when the Tigers inexplicably took him off the Marlins hands. The good news for the White Sox is that it didn’t cost them anything. If Youkilis regains form, they win. If he doesn’t, they didn’t lose anything of great value in return.

    • ARon23 says:

      Also, Youk isn’t being paid *that much* less. Papi, as a DH has always been in the $12-15M range. Youk is making $12M or so.
      Considering the hitting aspect of WAR is much more quantifiably trusted than the fielding aspect, I would say they have beencompensated fairly equally.

  15. Josh says:

    I have a memory of a great quote from Youkilis, but I can’t remember it exactly. He had a hit streak going (note: I think hit streaks are stupid), but he walked in his last at bat of the day, finishing up with an 0-3 or something and two walks as the Red Sox won easily. (Note: this is part of the reason I hate hit streaks.) Youkilis was asked if was aware of the streak going into that last at bat, and if he really wanted a hit, especially knowing the game was in hand.

    I don’t remember what he said about the desire to keep the streak alive, but he was quite intense about not chasing bad pitches for any reason. I wish I could remember what he said, but it was something about how if you’re willing to give away a single pitch and swing at something you shouldn’t, then you’re willing to give away an at bat and give away a game. It was inspiring.

    • Rob says:

      If you can’t remember the quote, then don’t post a rambling comment about it. Also, hit streaks are stupid? Come on. I hope you have an excuse for this post…. like chronic meth use, or something.

    • SBG says:

      Hitting streaks are wildly overrated.

  16. Alejo says:

    I know Soccer may not be your thing, but Spain just won the Eurocup as the incumbent and the current world champion.

    This surely makes this team one of the greatest ever in any sport.

    Maybe you should take a look.


  17. liulu haoma says:

    Pay attention to this post earlier this time!so good news in your articles.
    If you want to know more news about me…come to!

  18. It’s amazing that Boston is able to trade a player like Youk to make way for a talent like Middlebrooks (if that was the only reason), yet a team like the Royals can’t pull the trigger to trade or dump Frenchy to make room for Wil Myers.


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