Christian Yelich Silencing the 'Fluke' Fears to Join Trout, Betts Atop MLB

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 4, 2019

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - MARCH 31:  Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers at bat during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Miller Park on March 31, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Maybe Christian Yelich will just keep hitting forever after all.

The Milwaukee Brewers actually managed to win Wednesday without much help from Yelich, who went 0-for-2 with a pair of walks in their 1-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

Otherwise, the reigning National League MVP's fingerprints are all over Milwaukee's 6-1 start to 2019.

Yelich has nine hits in his first 24 at-bats, including four home runs in the Brewers' opening four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Miller Park. He also has three doubles, one of which was a walk-off job that clinched a victory in the aforementioned series.

The Major League Baseball season is only a week old, so warnings about small sample sizes go without saying. Yet nobody should be surprised to see Yelich with a .375/.531/1.000 batting line, much less an NL-best 0.8 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs as of Wednesday.

After five seasons with the Miami Marlins, Yelich's first season with the Brewers in 2018 got off to a pretty good start that included an .823 OPS and 11 homers. But in the second half, he transcended from merely pretty good to downright sublime with a 1.219 OPS and 25 homers.

Altogether, it added up to exactly a 1.000 OPS and 36 homers. The 27-year-old was also the National League's top position player in the eyes of both Baseball Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR.

Yelich's fiery bat boosted the Brewers to 96 wins and the NL Central title, and ultimately turned the NL MVP race from a tossup into a laugher. He received 29 of 30 first-place votes to become Milwaukee's first MVP since Ryan Braun in 2011.

If anyone is surprised by what Yelich is doing, it's probably for reasons that the man himself acknowledged when he showed up to spring training in February:

He was right. Everyone's an armchair general manager, and it is the responsibility of every armchair GM to treat anything that (figuratively) comes out of left field as a possible fluke.

With this case, specifically, it was perfectly reasonable not to expect Yelich to continue hitting like peak Barry Bonds for a full season. Before 2018, his offensive pinnacle was a 2016 campaign in which—under Bonds' tutelage, oddly enough—he finished with an .859 OPS and 21 homers.

Accordingly, projection systems at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus anticipated Yelich's offensive output for 2019 would fall closer to those marks than to what he did in 2018:

Further, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer covered, regression just comes with the territory for reigning MVP hitters. Perhaps they're cursed. More likely, baseball is just that hard.

Yelich always had the potential to be an outlier, however, in large part because his 2018 outburst was simply the culmination of tapping into talent that had always been there.

One of the things that held him back in Miami was Marlins Park, which is big enough to double as a landing strip for jumbo jets. Yelich's home/road splits between 2013 and 2017 very much fit the narrative that it's one of the worst places to hit for power:

  • Home: .396 SLUG% and 18 HR
  • Road: .465 SLUG% and 41 HR

If anything, Yelich's road figures undersold what kind of power he was packing. He averaged 95.4 mph exit velocity on his fly balls and line drives between 2015 and 2017, which ranked 12th among all hitters who hit at least 500 such balls.

Yelich also featured other hallmarks of a great hitting talent. He balanced good patience and strike zone discipline (10.7 BB%) with a decent ability to put the ball in play (20.6 K%). He also had a completely shift-proof spray pattern punctuated by a modest 32.2 percent pull rate. Hence how he could hit .290 with a .369 on-base percentage.

Still, Yelich didn't do himself any favors with his frustrating tendency to hit the ball on the ground. Between 2013 and 2017, his 59.1 ground-ball percentage was second to only Nori Aoki. If he were ever going to make his offensive potential his offensive reality, that had to change.

Perhaps because Yelich was emboldened by the comparatively friendly slugging environment of Miller Park, change indeed came in 2018. He knocked his GB% down to 51.8 overall, and he was rocking a 45.1 GB% by the final two months of the season. At long last, his batted balls were finally free to fly.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Much to his credit, Yelich didn't have to sacrifice any of his other talents to maximize his new power-friendly approach. Amid his hot second half, he kept walking (11.9 BB%), putting the ball in play (17.7 K%) and using the whole field.

What it all led to was the real deal, as Statcast's contact-quality-based expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) metric confirmed. Yelich's .473 second-half xwOBA was a whopping 55 points better than the runner-up.

Rather than merely keeping all this up in 2019, Yelich is pushing all the envelopes. He's walked twice as often as he's struck out, and his GB% is all the way down to 25.0 with hard-hit balls to all parts of the yard. His .509 xwOBA isn't the best of the early going, but 10th place will do for now.

Now's a good point to finally mention that Yelich isn't just useful within the confines of the batter's box. With Keon Broxton out of town, Yelich might be the fastest runner on the Brewers. He's also a former Gold Glove outfielder whose defensive metrics are consistently above average.

A guy like this has a 10-WAR season in him somewhere, and every indication is that Yelich's is going to come this year. If it does, he'll be breathing the same rarefied air that only American League superstars Mike Trout and Mookie Betts have breathed within the last three seasons.

This is, of course, unless opposing pitchers come up with something anything that might put out the fire in Yelich's bat. But since it's evident nobody could come up with a good scouting report over the winter for how to approach him, the only thing left to do is wish them good luck with that.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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