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Christian Yelich's Newfound Power Giving Marlins an Emerging Superstar

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 2, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 01: Christian Yelich #21 of the Miami Marlins hits an RBI single during the third inning against of the New York Mets in a game at Citi Field on September 1, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

When the injury bug ambushed and carried off Giancarlo Stanton in mid-August, the Miami Marlins lost a power source that still hasn't been replaced.

But give it up to Christian Yelich for giving it his best shot.

The slender left fielder isn't known for his power, but he's changing that more and more with each day. He clubbed seven home runs in August, or as many as he hit in 2015. And on the first day of September, one of his three hits in a 6-4 win over the New York Mets was a three-run job that just cleared the left field fence at Citi Field.

That was Yelich's third home run in as many days, and he is now hitting .310 with 18 dingers. His previous career high was nine. According to math, he's doubled that. According to logic, that's good.

Yelich's latest helped the Marlins snap a five-game losing streak and climb to within three games of the National League's second wild-card spot. But while that's worthy of lip service, the Marlins' postseason chances are teetering on the edge of not even being worthy of discussion. They're 11-18 since August 1 and aren't in good shape for the stretch run.

But if they ultimately take anything away from a disappointing finish to 2016, it could be that they got to watch Yelich begin his transition from underrated star to legitimate superstar.

We've known for years that Yelich can rake. He was a .311 hitter in the minors and a .290 hitter in the majors heading into 2016. He also ran the bases well and played Gold Glove-caliber defense, earning WAR's approval despite the fact he had just 20 career homers at the end of 2015. You could rub your palms together and say, "If only he had some power..."

That didn't seem likely to come true, however. As MLB.com's Andrew Simon illustrated, Yelich was established as a unique (read: "pretty darn weird") hitter by last season:

Andrew Simon @AndrewSimonMLB

Christian Yelich had MLB's lowest avg. launch angle in 2015 (min. 100 balls in play), but he does hit it hard. https://t.co/4N289YPWPi

Hard contact is, indeed, a good thing, and 2015 was just the latest year in which Yelich made plenty of it. He didn't even have his highest hard-hit rate, yet he still managed to land in the top 25 in Baseball Savant's average exit velocity leaderboard at 92.0 miles per hour.

But hard contact alone does not power make. Launch angle is another key ingredient. The higher the launch angle, the more balls in the air, and the more balls to find the gaps or go over the fence. Yelich's average launch angle in 2015 was 0.7 degrees, pretty close to zero and my making a lame crack about his not even having a launch angle.

Yelich's aversion to launch angle before 2016 created the highest ratio of ground balls to fly balls of any hitter in the majors. As a sort of bonus, he also had one of the lowest pull rates of any hitter.

The CliffsNotes: Yelich was showing he could barrel the ball well enough to hit for power, but his entire approach was about as far removed from a power hitter's as you could imagine. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN- JUNE 09: Christian Yelich #21 of the Miami Marlins talks with Barry Bonds #25 against the Minnesota Twins on June 9, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Marlins defeated the Twins 10-3. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota
Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

Obviously, things have changed in 2016. According to the man himself, the adjustment he's made in working with Marlins hitting coaches Frank Menechino and Barry Bonds (himself a fairly accomplished power hitter) has been a mental one.

“We worked on some stuff in [the cage], I liked it and got a feel for it,” the 24-year-old told Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald. “The stance and the mechanics are the same. I’ve kept the same approach. It was more of a thought process that helped.”

Mental adjustments are more difficult to turn into hard evidence, but a few things stand out.

Thing 1: Yelich is getting under more balls, posting an average launch angle of 2.0 degrees that's led to the lowest ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of his career.

Thing 2: He's been pulling the ball more, entering Thursday with a career-high 35.1 pull percentage. 

Thing 3: Yelich hasn't needed his newfound pull habit to hit for power, slugging .417 on pitches on and off the outside edge of the strike zone. He had never done better than .320 before. Not surprisingly, the key has been driving the ball to left field.

In addition to trying new things, Yelich has made his quietly good raw power downright elite. He's averaging 96.8 mph on his fly balls and line drives. That's 0.1 mph south of Miguel Cabrera, who is literally Miguel Cabrera.

Apologies for the ongoing number barrage, but the last one we need to look at is one that relates back to that half-baked thought about what Yelich could be with more power. Per Baseball-Reference.com's WAR, it turns out Yelich with power is arguably the best left fielder in baseball:

  1. Christian Yelich: 4.8
  2. Starling Marte: 4.5
  3. Ryan Braun: 3.9

It makes sense. Left field isn't a big superstar position. And considering that he can now run, field, hit and hit for power, Yelich is making a darn strong case to be called a superstar.

It's probably too late for this to mean anything for a Marlins team that has too little. But Yelich isn't going anywhere, and Miami is entitled to the warm thought that this is just the beginning.

                    

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and Baseball Savant unless otherwise noted/linked.

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