How many remaining ways are there to praise Christian Yelich?
The Milwaukee Brewers swung a massive trade to obtain Yelich and his long-term, team-friendly contract on January 25th, 2018, adding Lorenzo Cain as a free agent on the same day to totally re-shape the outfield picture. Yelich had been quite a productive player with the Miami Marlins, a solidly above-average bat to go along with terrific defense in left field that won him a Gold Glove in 2014. He was already an All-Star caliber player, but it still felt like there was more untapped potential left in the tank.
Some suggested that a swing adjustment to help create a higher launch would behoove Yelich as he moved to hitter-friendly Miller Park, but he kept on with the same approach. His first-half numbers were strong, quite in line with his career averages — a .292/.364/.459 slash with 11 home runs that earned him his first appearance on the National League All-Star team. It wasn’t until after he homered during the mid-summer classic, though, that Yelich truly took his game to the next level.
From July 18th through the end of the season, Yelich absolutely tore the cover off the baseball. He hit .367/.449/.770 for a wRC+ of 220, meaning that his offensive production was some 120% better than the league-average player during that time. In 65 games, he clobbered more dingers — 25 — than he had in any of his previous 162-game seasons. It seemed like every time Yelich made contact with a ball he was sending a rocket somewhere across the field, although in reality, his hard contact rate was actually only 50.5% — fifth-best in the league during that time.
Like any good Most Valuable Player, Yelich saved his best work for when the team needed it most. The Brewers began September in third place in the NL Central, 5.0 games behind the Cubs for first. But thanks in large part to his truly superlative play, the team began to claw back in the standings. Yelich played in 27 games during the final month of the season, and he recorded 34 hits and 24 walks in 118 plate appearances. Including two hit-by-pitches, he found his way on base 60 times in 27 games, while striking out on a mere 16 occasions. He launched 10 homers among 18 extra-base hits. His batting line was a remarkable .370/.508/.804. Milwaukee won their final seven games of the regular season to draw even with the Cubs and force a tie-breaking game 163, and then dispatched of their foes to the south on their home turf at Wrigley Field to capture their first division title since 2011.
Yelich concluded the season with a .326/.402/.598 batting line, totaling a 166 wRC+ that ranks second all-time among the individual regular season performances in franchise history. He won the first batting title in club history, and was a few homers and RBI short of winning the Triple Crown. His 36 total home runs and 22 stolen bases were both career-best marks. He hit for the cycle not once, but twice against the Cincinnati Reds. He won the Hank Aaron Award, the Silver Slugger, and the Most Valuable player.
In his first career playoff game, in his first at-bat, he swung at the first pitch he saw against the Colorado Rockies and deposited over the left-center field fence for a home run. He would go on to hit for a .772 OPS with a pair of homers during Milwaukee’s 10 postseason games, though he struggled a bit with the bat during the Dodgers series, like many of his teammates.
Despite a busy offseason doing things like appearing on network television shows and raising money for those afflicted by wildfires and gun violence in his home area of Southern California, Yelich showed up to AmFam Fields of Phoenix ready to play this spring, The reigning MVP appears primed to defend his honor after batting .474/.487/.921 with four homers and five doubles in 15 Cactus League games.
Yelich figures to play primarily in right field this season, but will probably shift around to both left and center field on days when Ryan Braun or Lorenzo Cain aren’t in the lineup. When Yelich does get a breather, figure on seeing Ben Gamel or possibly even Eric Thames getting some reps on the grass.
In the Minors
Again, Tyrone Taylor figures to be the most prominent depth player in the outfield this season, with the possibility of Corey Ray seeing some big league action later on in the summer. Guys to keep an eye on further on down in the minors are Zach Clark, Pablo Abreu, Cooper Hummel, Tristen Lutz, and Je’Von Ward.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs