The 2019 season came to a screeching halt for Christian Yelich in the first inning of this past Tuesday’s game. The Milwaukee Brewers were on the road facing Yelich’s former team, the Miami Marlins. Batting third, Yelich fouled a pitch from Elieser Hernandez into his right knee and immediately crumpled to the ground in pain. He was down for several minutes before eventually walking off the field, but tests later confirmed the worst-case scenario — a broken knee cap for Yelich and an 8-10 week recovery timeline, effectively ending his regular season and any hopes he had of contributing in the playoffs.
More than just robbing the Brewers of their best bat in the lineup, the injury ended arguably the best offensive season by any player in franchise history. Yelich was awarded as the Most Valuable Player in the National League during the 2018 season and somehow improved upon that outstanding performance during the current campaign.
Christian’s season ends with 130 games played and 580 plate appearances, enough to qualify him for the batting title. At present, his .329 batting average ranks second in the NL to Anthony Rendon (.332). Yelich’s .429 on-base percentage and .671 slugging percentage both rank first on the Senior Circuit, meaning that he also owns the league’s highest OPS at 1.100. That translates to a 173 wRC+, which is also the highest among National Leaguers, naturally.
Though he hasn’t played in nearly a week, Yelich still ranks among the league’s leaders in various counting stats, too. He is tied for third in dingers, smashing 44 long balls over the fence this season. He’s ninth with an even 100 runs scored. 97 runs batted in places him in 11th place. His 80 walks are eighth-most in the NL, and his 13.8% walk rate also rates as the eighth-highest in the league. Yelich’s Isolated Power Mark — a measure of pure power production the subtracts batting average from slugging percentage — of .342 is the highest in the National League.
More than just a power threat at the plate, Yelich also used his speed and skill on the basepaths to accomplish a feat that only nine other men in baseball history can say that they’ve done. When Yelich stole his 30th base (in 32 attempts, for a 94% success rate), he became just the 10th player of all-time to hit 40 or more home runs and steal 30 or more bases in a single season. The last player to achieve both these thresholds at once is actually Yelich’s close friend and teammate Ryan Braun, who posted his 40/30 season back in 2012. Christian’s 30 stolen bags is currently the third-highest total among National League players this season. According to BsR — Baserunning Runs, a measure of value added by accounting for steals, caught stealings, and other running plays like taking extra bases — Yelich was the most valuable baserunner on the Senior Circuit in 2019, adding an estimated 8.5 runs of value to the Brewers this year on the base paths.
Yelich still leads the National League with 7.7 fWAR according to Fangraphs’ calculations, with Cody Bellinger (7.3) not far behind and then Ketel Marte (6.9) and Anthony Rendon (6.9) a shade below the Los Angeles star. Bellinger will almost surely eclipse Yelich’s wins above replacement total before season’s end, and because he’ll also have the advantage in several other counting stats (assuming he stays healthy), this year’s MVP award is likely now his to lose.
The season that Yelich posted is not only great when compared to his contemporary peers, but it the case can also be made that is has been the finest offensive season in the history of the Milwaukee Brewers. Here is where Yelich’s number rank in franchise annals:
.329 batting average — 6th
.429 on-base percentage — 2nd
.671 slugging percentage — 1st
1.100 OPS — 1st
173 wRC+ — 1st
.441 wOBA — 1st
.342 ISO — 1st
44 home runs — 6th
30 stolen bases — t-20th
8.5 baserunning runs — 2nd
16 intentional walks — t-7th
7.86 Win Probability Added — 2nd
68.58 RE24 — 2nd
7.7 fWAR — 3rd
In terms of overall value by wins above replacement, only Robin Yount in 1982 (9.8) and Jonathan Lucroy in 2014 (8.2) have eclipsed Yelich’s 2019 fWAR in a single season. Paul Molitor has the highest batting average season in franchise history by virtue of hitting .353 in 1987, but only four times has a Brewer batter come within even 100 points of Yeli’s 1.100 OPS — Prince Fielder in 2009 (1.014) and 2011 (1.013), Molitor in 1987 (1.003), and Yelich himself, last year (1.000). When we compare Yeli’s season in terms of wRC+, which is scaled to account for the league’s average offensive player in a given season, we do find a few closer competitors for Yelich’s offensive crown. Ryan Braun and his 171 wRC+ in 2011 comes closest, only two points behind Christian. Then comes Yelich’s own 2018 season at 166, Molitor’s 1987 (165) and Sixto Lezcano’s 1979 (165), and Robin Yount’s 1982 (164). Those are the only seasons that a Brewer batter has come within 10 points of Yelich’s wRC+.
What Christian Yelich has done at the plate and on the bases during his first two years with the Milwaukee Brewers is nearly unprecedented across baseball history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three other players have ever had a two-year span where they totaled 80+ home runs, 200+ runs driven in, and 50+ stolen bases — Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Willie Mays. Only four offensive players have ever posted multiple seasons of 6+ fWAR while suiting up for the Cream City Nine — Yount (1980, 1982, 1983), Jonathan Lucroy (2013, 2014), Braun (2011, 2012), and now Yelich (2018, 2019). In fact, the 15.3 fWAR that Yelich has accrued in just 277 games with Milwaukee already ranks as the 18th-highest total among position players in franchise history, just behind Jeromy Burnitz (17.1 fWAR in 782 games) and right in front of Corey Hart (14.4 fWAR in 945 games).
We have been fortunate enough in Milwaukee to witness one of the greatest stretches of productivity not only in the history of our beloved local nine, but also among all baseball players of all-time. Christian Yelich has ascended to become arguably the best player in the National League and perhaps one of the top two or three players across all of baseball. His current injury sucks inasmuch as we won’t be able to see him anymore in 2019, but it isn’t believed to be something that will affect him negatively over the long-term. Hopefully that means we’ll be treated to at least three more seasons of historic levels of production before Yelich’s current contract runs out following the 2022 season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs