Shortly after the Yankees signed Kevin Youkilis to a one-year deal last December, word came out that acclaimed team hitting coach Kevin Long would meet with him for a Kevin-on-Kevin tête-à-tête about possible adjustments to his unique batting stance. For years, Youkilis kept his hands back and lightly gripped the bat slightly above his head, then followed through on a swing. For years, it was the most iconic part of Youkilis's game aside from the somewhat-terrifying facial hair that made him look like a Lord of the Rings villain. His approach at the plate was unorthodox, but it sure as hell worked through 2010.
Youk stormed through the minors with an incredible .442 on-base percentage, and after a couple split seasons in '04 and '05 between Triple-A Pawtucket and Boston, he inherited a regular spot in the '06 Red Sox lineup as its first baseman. He became accustomed to major-league pitching, and in '08, he emerged as legitimate MVP candidate. Over the course of three seasons from 2008-10, Youkilis was one of the most dangerous hitters baseball, batting .308/.404/.560 with 105 doubles, 75 homers, and a 148 OPS+. It was strange to see someone with such an odd batting stance achieve such success, but then again, pundits did not call Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. "The Man of 1,000 Stances" for his indecisiveness on domestic issues. It was bizarre, but it worked.
During the past two seasons though, the years of various injuries (most notably to his hands) caught up to him. In addition to spending more time on the Disabled List, he started to bring his hands up even higher in his stance and gripping the bat even less so than before. The entire swing itself was a tiny bit longer in time as well, and those nanoseconds make a difference in a sport where the decision to swing or not must be made in a split-second. Although he was only a couple years older, Youkilis's triple-slash numbers dwindled to .258/.373/.459 (123 OPS+) in 2011 and .235/.336/.409 (99 OPS+) in 2012, which was split between the Red Sox and White Sox.
Youkilis could still get his hits in now and then, but all three triple slash categories were as low as they have ever been. In an interview from January, Youkilis admitted that the old swing led to "too many weak grounders to third and pop-ups to right field." That linked article mentions some changes that Youkilis made to his swing during the 2012-13 off-season with Long:
• A wider, more athletic "linebacker" -type foot position, to achieve better balance.
• Starting the stance with his hands lower and bringing them up just above helmet level, instead of way over his head.
• A shorter stride toward the pitcher as the forward motion of the swing begins.
• His hands also appear to be a little closer together on the handle; Youkilis almost looked like he was holding a pool cue before. And he's positioning the handle closer to the plate.
New Swing: Youk Goes Yard
This Spring, we have started to see some of these edits to the infamous swing. Youkilis began the Spring 0-for-9, but the new stance produced hits in each of his previous three games. Obviously, Spring Training statistics are quite meaningless since it's a small sample size and neither team features its best nine players in the field, but there are small glimpses that reveal something every now and then. All three of those hits came against major leaguers (J.A. Happ, Lance Lynn, and Cliff Lee), and they all were hit hard, right on the mythic "sweet spot," yielding two doubles and a homer. Here's an example from yesterday's game of that new swing on display:
It is not too difficult to notice the difference between the swing observed yesterday and the one from last year. The whole swing is faster and his hands are low enough to turn around a pitch in no time. The previously linked Big League Stew article mentions that they are going for more of a "2008" approach to his swing. Those two swings certainly look more similar. We shall see if the new strategy successfully carries over into the regular season.
Unrelated--this was also in that article, and this is just amusing:
Another interesting facet of the chat: Youkilis's agent gets hounded with requests for Youk to attend (probably for a fee) Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. It's too bad "the schedule doesn't allow for" him to attend more, Youkilis said. Now that he's playing for a New York team, requests are only going to get more voluminous, with Youkilis being the Yankees' first Jewish player in a while, he said.
Happy Bar Mitzvah son, you get Kevin Youkilis randomly hanging out with strangers!