Christian Yelich is a really good hitter, but he could be better.
That alone isn’t groundbreaking analysis -- the general consensus seems to be that Marlins Park is one of the worst places for hitters in the majors, and that’s evident in Yelich’s home/road splits. For his career, he’s hit .280/.364/.398 in Miami and .300/.373/.462 everywhere else, and OPS difference of nearly 70 points.
But that isn’t what this is about.
It’s generally assumed that Yelich will see a boost in his numbers with the switch to Miller Park, and while that will likely be the case, the difference may not be as drastic as you may think.
That’s because in order to take advantage of the switch from Marlins Park to Miller Park, Yelich will have to start hitting the ball in the air.
”Launch angle” has become a bit of a buzzword lately, to the point where it’s started to get mocked. But for Yelich, it’s always been a bit of an issue, at least as far as his power numbers are concerned. He’s only hit double-digit home runs twice in the four seasons in which he got more than 500 plate appearances, and he’s only hit more than 20 home runs once.
That’s not because of a lack of hard contact. According to Statcast, Yelich had an average exit velocity of 90.4 mph last year, and hit 213 balls harder than 95 mph -- ranking 4th in all of baseball. So why has he had so much trouble getting the ball to leave the yard, even on the road? Because most of the time, he’s hitting the ball on a line or on the ground.
Last year, Yelich hit a line drive 19.4% of the time, but also had a groundball rate of 55.4%. That’s largely because of a launch angle was just 4.7 degrees -- the relatively flat angle doesn’t result in a ton of fly balls, and that saps into the home run potential.
With Yelich now in camp with the Brewers, scouting veteran Bernie Pleskoff asked David Stearns about that ground ball rate, and whether it was because he knew it didn’t pay off to try to hit home runs in Miami if you aren’t Giancarlo Stanton. Stearns said, no, that wasn’t the case.
I asked #Brewers fantastic (IMO) GM David Stearns about Christian Yelich's ground ball rate in Miami. Bernie: "Was it because of the park factor in Miami-tough to hit homers?" Stearns: "No-he is evolving. He will continue to develop as a power hitter. It was not intentional."— Bernie Pleskoff (@BerniePleskoff) February 21, 2018
Yelich’s swing has done well for him so far, but those comments from Stearns seem to indicate the Brewers will work with him to get more out of it, and possibly continue to improve that fabled launch angle. Yelich has made strides in that department over the past couple years, and he’s put up the two highest home run totals of his career.
Tinkering with a swing is always a little scary -- especially when a team invests as much as they did in Yelich -- but with how hard Yelich hits the ball, even a modest tweak could make a big difference. He doesn’t need to add a concerted uppercut to his swing like Yonder Alonso did before his power surge. A slight alteration could lead to more of those line drives carrying just beyond the wall, like many of Domingo Santana’s home runs did in 2017.
Even if Yelich doesn’t start hitting like a young, left-handed Ryan Braun, he should still be a valuable part of the Brewers’ lineup. He hasn’t posted the power numbers you’d typically like to see from a corner outfielder, but he’s still put up a WAR of 4.5 in three of the last four years and has a career wRC+ of 121. But if the Brewers can squeeze out another percent-or-two increase in his launch angle? Well, then he’s a true contact-and-power threat and possibly one of the best hitters in baseball.
Just as this piece was posted, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel posted their right field positional preview, which focuses heavily on the possibility of Yelich spending a decent amount of time there, and how the outfield playing time situation might break down. But Yelich also addresses the move to Miller Park.
He says he won’t go into the more friendly offensive environment trying to do any more than he’s done throughout his Major League career:
“I’m not going to change anything. ... I’m going to stay with the same approach. Just because I’m going to a smaller park, per se, I’m not going to try to do too much or do more. Marlins Park was probably one of the tougher ones in the league to hit at, but we had a lot of guys make it look like a bandbox when it really wasn’t.”
“I’m just excited to see how it plays. I’m not going to force anything, and really just stay with the approach I’ve had for the last few years.”
“I just go up there, try to get a good pitch to hit and hit it hard. ... That’s really all you can control if you think about it. Then everything else kind of plays itself out. I stay within myself, and try not to do too much.”
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant