What more is there to say about Christian Yelich?
On January 25th, 2018 — a date that has forever become a landmark in franchise history — the Milwaukee Brewers sent a package of four prospects to the Miami Marlins in exchange for Yelich. He had already established himself as a terrific player during his five years with the Fish, averaging a 121 OPS+ and 4.0 bWAR per 650 plate appearances after debuting in the big leagues in 2013. Since the deal went down, however, Yelich has ascended to true superstar status thanks to a slight alteration to his swing to create more fly balls coupled with the move to a more hitter-friendly ballpark down in the Menomonee Valley.
Yelich captured the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2018 after winning the batting title and finishing with a 166 wRC+, 36 home runs, and 22 steals. The pundits spoke of regression heading into 2019, and Yelich used that as motivation to somehow become even better this past season. He won his second-straight batting title after improving his average to .329, and also led the league in on-base percentage (.429), slugging (.671), and, naturally, OPS (1.110).
Yelich shaved a hair off his strikeout rate (from 20.7% to 20.3%). He improved his walk rate by more than three points up to 13.8%, including a major jump in intentional walks (from two to 16!). In 2018, Yelich finished second in the NL with a .272 ISO. In 2019, his .342 ISO led the Senior Circuit by 18 points. He finished in the league’s 98th percentile in average exit velocity, the 96th percentile in hard contact rate, and the 99th percentile in expected weighted on-base average.
Despite being limited to 130 games and 580 plate appearances after a freak knee injury on a foul ball ended his season in mid-September, Yelich set a new career high with 44 home runs, eight more than the previous career high that he achieved the year before. He even became more valuable on the basepaths, stealing 30 bases at a 94% success rate while adding 8.5 baserunning runs above average (up from +5.8 BsR in 2018). His Sprint Speed ranked in the league’s 88th percentile.
Yelich’s defense isn’t a weakness, per se, however other personnel moves made by the team during this past offseason will allow Craig Counsell to regularly line up the superstar in his best spot on the grass. Christian was the team’s primary right fielder during the last two seasons while veteran Ryan Braun patrolled left field, and Yelich graded out as merely ‘average’ during that time according to the metrics. He accrued -1 Defensive Runs Saved, +4.2 Ultimate Zone Runs and -6.0 Fielding Runs Above Average in a little over 1,600 innings in right during his first two seasons in Brewers’ blue, but the addition of Avisail Garcia will move Christian back across the outfield to playing left on an everyday basis. Yelich won a Gold Glove in left for the Marlins in 2014 and has been valued at +27 DRS there over the course of his career.
The injury wound up costing Yelich a second-straight MVP award as he finished second to Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers, though as our David Gibson explored recently, there are plenty of reasons to dispute that decision. Now fully healthy, Yelich should be an anchor in the lineup once again whenever baseball does begin in 2020, and for several years beyond that after agreeing to an extension that ensures he’ll be suiting up for the Milwaukee Nine through at least 2028. With deferrals, Yelich won’t make more than $22 mil any given season. Sure, that means he’ll be getting paid by the organization through 2042, but still...Yelich may be a California kid who was transplanted to the Midwest through no choice of his own, yet he feels so much at home here that he decided to give Milwaukee about as big a ‘hometown discount’ as you’ll see in the game today.
On the days when Yelich isn’t manning left field — and he’s been somewhat prone to missed time in the last two years, dealing with off-and-on back issues dating back to his Marlins’ days in addition to the knee injury — Braun will likely be the man to see those plate appearances. Counsell’s personnel is likely to lead to plenty of rotations around the diamond — Braun occasionally spelling Yelich in left and Garcia in right in addition to his duties at first base, Garcia giving Lorenzo Cain breaks in center field, and depending on how the roster shakes out, perhaps Ben Gamel serving as the fifth outfielder across all positions. Utilityman Brock Holt could also see some spot starts in the grass too, if necessary.
In the Minors
Unlike most other positions around the diamond, outfield is actually a spot where the Brewers possess solid depth throughout the organization. 40-man outfield Tyrone Taylor got a brief look at the end of last season and has been solid in Triple-A the last two years. There was a reunion with old friend Keon Broxton to provide another veteran presence in Triple-A along with Jace Peterson and Andres Blanco. Switch-hitting Cooper Hummel is coming off something of a breakout campaign in Double-A Biloxi and could get a shot at the highest level of the minors. And of course, former #5 overall draft pick Corey Ray is still hanging around and looking to bounce back after a nightmarish season in 2019.
Chad Spanberger, the trade return for Chase Anderson, possesses enviable raw power grades and is capable of playing the outfield corners. Top prospect Tristen Lutz should get his first opportunity to make the jump to Double-A. MiLB free agent signee Alexander Palma is interesting. Further on down the ladder are guys worth paying attention to like Carlos Rodriguez, Joe Gray, Thomas Dillard, Pablo Abreu, and Micah Bello. And even farther into the future are the highly touted players who have been part of Milwaukee’s strong international classes such as Eduarqui Fernandez, Luis Medina, and Hedbert Perez.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant