When the Milwaukee Brewers acquired Christian Yelich from Miami back in January, Slingin’ David Stearns and company knew they were getting a talented offensive player. There was some speculation, however, that Yelich could take his game to new heights by adjusting his swing to change his launch angle and hit more fly balls. The left-handed batter routinely ranked among league leaders in ground balls during his time with the Marlins yet was able to post a wRC+ of 115 or better in each of his five seasons in Miami, and after he popped 39 homers across 2016-17 there was rampant belief that he could unlock even more raw power potential if he could simply lift the ball more often.
Yelich, however, disagreed with the notion that he should change his approach when he was asked about it in February:
“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...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.”
And to this point in the 2018 season, Yelich has been true to his word. There have been some small changes in how he operates at the plate, including a slightly increased willingness to chase pitches out of the zone (25.7% to 28.8% o-swing rate) and in general, a few more swings overall (42.4% to 43.8% swing rate). With more swings have come a few more swings-and-misses (8.6% to 9.8% swinging strike rate) and a career-high in strikeout rate (22.5%). Yelich’s K-rate is about two points higher than his career average, but it is right in line with the typical percentage for batters across baseball.
But instead of increasing his launch angle and hitting more balls in the air this year, Yelich’s 20.5% fly ball rate is actually five points lower than it was in 2017. Only five other qualified hitters have hit fewer fly balls than Yelich this season, and only nine qualified hitters have put the ball on the ground more often than Christian’s 54.5% GB rate. That number is also right in line with where Yelich has been in terms of grounders over the last few seasons. Yelich’s deficit in fly balls can be found in an increased line drive rate, which at an even 25% ranks among the top-25 of all hitters in baseball.
Now working with hitting coach Darnell Coles in Milwaukee, Yelich has also greatly improved his production against offspeed pitches this year. Christian has always raked against a pitcher’s hard stuff, and this year he’s batting .373 against four-seamers and .328 against sinkers. Secondary pitches had previously given him some issues during his career, but not so much in 2018:
Christian Yelich vs. Secondary Pitches
|Pitch Type||BA/SLG (career)||BA/SLG (2018)|
|Pitch Type||BA/SLG (career)||BA/SLG (2018)|
The improved performance against offspeed and breaking pitches, combined with his general excellence against fastballs, has helped Yelich generate a more than 11% increase in hard contact rate this season. The southpaw swinger has registered hard contact on 46.9% of the balls he’s put in play in 2018, which is the ninth-highest rate in baseball. Given that Yelich is constantly making excellent contact and some 80% of his balls in play are line drives or ground balls, it should come as no surprise at all that he leads all of Major League Baseball - by nearly 20 points - with a .397 batting average on balls in play. And on the rare occasions that Yelich does hit a fly ball, those are typically hit hard and travel far - his 28.3% HR/FB ratio ranks as the fourth-best in the league.
All of that adds up to what’s shaping up to be the finest season of Christian Yelich’s already impressive career. He has compiled a .326/.387/.542 slash through his first 431 plate appearances as a member of the Cream City Nine and is currently sitting atop the National League leader board for batting average. His 147 wRC+ would be a new career-high by a long shot, and with 17 home runs already at the beginning of August he’s well on pace to break his previous high water mark for a single season of 21. He’s even swiped 14 bags to boot, and ranks among the league’s best runners (ninth overall) with +5.0 base running runs.
Stearns and his brain trust paid a pretty penny in prospects in order to acquire the services of Christian Yelich for this year and up to the next four seasons after 2018, and so far that price looks to have every bit worth it. Yelich is a true star in the outfield for the Milwaukee Brewers, and he could very well be on his way to becoming the first player in franchise history to win a batting title.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball