FORT MYERS, Fla. — Even in college, Kevin Youkilis knew what a strike looked like.
Catchers were responsible for calling balls and strikes during intrasquad games at the University of Cincinnati in those days. Whatever the catcher called, that was what went.
But when Youkilis disagreed with a call, he made sure to razz the catcher about it. He tended to be right, too.
“He had a great eye even then,” said Nolan Landy, a special-education teacher at Warwick Veterans High School who pitched against Youkilis in those intrasquad games at Cincinnati. “He just wouldn’t swing at bad pitches.”
Youkilis now has umpires — who tend to be a little more objective than catchers — to call his balls and strikes. He takes full advantage. His power has evolved over the years, but his batting eye has always been his greatest asset.
In his senior year at Cincinnati, Youkilis drew 59 walks in 58 games and finished the season with a .549 on-base percentage. He then drew 70 walks in 59 games at Class A Lowell after the Red Sox made him an eighth-round draft pick in 2001.
A year later, when Youkilis was playing third base at AA Trenton in the second half of the season, he caught the eye of Adrian Gonzalez, a first baseman making his way up the ladder in the Florida Marlins organization. Youkilis drew 31 walks in 44 games and struck out just 18 times.
Only a handful — “out of 15 teams, you might pick out five or 10,” Gonzalez said — had the type of understanding of the strike zone Youkilis had.
“He was a real good hitter then, had a great understanding of the strike zone, didn’t chase pitches out of the zone,” said Gonzalez, who struck out twice as often as he walked during that 2002 season.
“When a hitter can do that in Double A, they’re going to have success up here. Failure at (the major-league) level comes from chasing pitches that a pitcher wants you to go after. When the hitter doesn’t do that, you force the pitcher to come into the zone and to come into the area where you want the ball. If you can be consistent with your swing, you’re going to have success. He can do that.”
A year later, when Youkilis returned to Trenton, he drew 86 walks in 94 games and struck out just 40 times. Not until 2004 did he finish a minor-league season with more strikeouts than walks, and he again had more walks than strikeouts in close to 200 minor-league plate appearances, posting a .459 on-base percentage in the process.
A year later, he was in the major leagues for good.
“He never gives an at-bat away — ever,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “He grinds out every at-bat, which really leads to not just him being a productive hitter, but how many times do you see Youk have a long at-bat and then the next hitter comes up and gets a pitch to handle because the guy is frustrated?”
Distinguishing balls and strikes isn’t as glamorous a skill as hitting home runs or stealing bases. It’s for that reason that Youkilis remained an under-the-radar hitter as long as he did. He even was left off the All-Star team last season despite having the third-best on-base percentage in the American League at the time voting results were announced.
The additions of Gonzalez and Carl Crawford might overshadow the production of Youkilis a little, but there are few who don’t rank him among the best hitters in baseball. Over the last three seasons, in fact, only Albert Pujols has posted a higher OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
“That’s a guy that hits for power, hits for average, high on-base percentage,” said Brad Mills, the former Red Sox bench coach who now manages the Houston Astros. “That’s way up there. That’s way up the ladder.”
“He’s got really good hands,” Gonzalez said. “That’s one thing I’ve told him. When you have some of the loosest hands, both offensively and defensively, you can manipulate the bat and do whatever you want with the ball. That’s something that allows him to have so much success.”
Youkilis’ batting eye always looked elite. The rest of his game is what has caught up.
“Everyone is always like, ‘He must have been phenomenal in college,”’ Landy said. “It was hard for me to say that he would have the success that he did. I only knew him as a freshman and a sophomore. But I could tell he was a hard worker, and he definitely had a good idea.”
Said Francona: “Not to slight Kevin, but you just don’t know how good guys are going to get. He’s really taken it to another level. I don’t know if I could have told you in 2004 in spring training that we’d see him be our cleanup hitter — and we’d be thrilled.”