The Milwaukee Brewers wasted little time in establishing one of their main goals for the 2021-2022 offseason. President of Baseball Operations David Stearns stressed the importance of getting former MVP Christian Yelich back to form, or at least closer to it than what we saw in 2021.
Yelich just ended the worst season of his nine-year career. His power vanished. The former slugger left the yard just nine times and finished the year with a .125 ISO and .373 slugging percentage. That would not have been as much of an issue had Yelich continued to get hits at the rate he normally did, but he batted just .248. An elite walk rate helped him reach base at a strong .362 clip, but Yelich simply was not a threat to do much of anything with the bat.
Stearns openly admitted that the organization does not yet have an answer for the sudden drop in production. By the end of the season, two theories had emerged as the most popular among fans and analysts. The first was that Yelich was too passive, and the other was that he was not elevating the ball enough.
It’s easy to see how these hypotheses sprouted. The numbers clearly show that Yelich swung less—both overall and on pitches in the strike zone—than he did when he was at his peak. His ground ball rate increased, and his average launch angle plummeted. These would be awfully convenient explanations for his struggles.
There is just one significant catch. When he played for the Miami Marlins, Yelich was not as aggressive and consistently had one of the highest ground ball rates in the league. Neither of those prevented him from being productive, as he batted .290 with a 122 wRC+ over five seasons with the Fish.
As illustrated in the table above, Yelich swung at pitches in the strike zone more frequently, offered at more first-pitch strikes, and hit fewer ground balls in 2021 than he did on average over his successful run with the Marlins. Based on these metrics, Yelich should have been able to match that level of production or even exceed it, even if he was still not the MVP version of Yelich that Milwaukee became accustomed to. After all, we’ve been placing such an emphasis on these areas for months. Something doesn’t seem to be adding up.
Maybe we have spent the last few months asking the wrong question. Instead of trying to figure out why Yelich suddenly stopped being a superstar hitter, the first step to fixing him is to look back a bit further. Why did he fall well short of his production with the Marlins?
Put another way, the 2021 version of Yelich displayed many of the same traits that he did over a strong five-year run to begin his career. Despite this, he failed to come close to that level of production, meaning something had to be different. Finding that something may be the key to reaching the root of his struggles. What did 2021 Yelich struggle with that 2013-2017 Yelich did not?
Let’s begin by diving into the batted ball metrics. The assumption has been that Yelich hit too many ground balls this year, yet Marlins Yelich was more productive while hitting even more grounders. Why did his batting average nosedive? Yelich saw more shifts than ever before in 2021. Did better positioning mean that more of his ground balls went for outs?
Interestingly, Yelich’s batting average on ground balls in 2021 was a career-high. However, his average exit velocity and average launch angle on rollers were both significantly lower than usual, including his Marlins days. If it seemed like Yelich was hitting more soft choppers straight into the ground, that’s because he was. For this reason, his expected batting average on grounders was just .264, tied for a career low. In many cases, he was using his speed to help him turn weak choppers into hits, as evidenced by his career-high 7.7% infield hit rate.
All of those numbers mean that Yelich was doing less of this...
...and more of this.
Both of those are ground balls, and both go down as hits in the box score, but one is a much cleaner hit than the other. If Yelich has a grounder problem, it isn’t that he is hitting too many of them to be successful. It’s that he is getting even farther on top of the ball than he normally does, resulting in weakly-hit hoppers.
Yelich’s ground ball rate did not hurt his overall slash line nearly as much as you might expect. Believe it or not, much of the difference between 2021 Yelich and Marlins Yelich is what happened when he did elevate the ball.
Yelich’s line drive rate was the lowest of his career, but it was comparable to his 2013, 2014, and 2019 seasons, and it was only two percentage points below his average rate over his Marlins career. The main takeaway here is that Yelich batted a career-worst .567 on line drives. That might have made sense if Yelich started hitting more soft liners that rarely left the infield. Instead, he was hitting his line drives as hard as ever. His expected batting average was 86 points higher and not too far off from usual. Yelich was still squaring up the ball plenty, but he ended up with little to show for it.
Brewers television analyst Bill Schroeder frequently observed that Yelich was hitting plenty of frozen ropes that somehow found gloves. Schroeder wasn’t just making excuses for the former MVP’s diminished production. Yelich was one of the unluckiest line drive hitters in the sport in 2021. Among batters who hit at least 50 line drives, his batting average on liners ranked 22nd from the bottom. 19 of those 22 players averaged under 95 MPH on their line drives. Yelich averaged 98.2.
Yelich had the sixth-highest average exit velocity (99.9) on line-drive outs among hitters who lined out at least 10 times. 25 of his 31 lineouts were hard-hit. A video compilation of these batted balls proves that Yelich did in fact have plenty of tough luck.
Yelich’s home run power may have been down dramatically, but he did not lose any of his gap power. Unfortunately, many of those blistering liners found gloves instead of grass. Expect that to turn around in 2022.
Yelich did not have the best of luck on his side with fly balls, either. After batting .277 with a .468 wOBA on fly balls with the Marlins, he hit just .229 with a .396 wOBA in 2021. However, a .271 expected batting average and .469 xwOBA line up nicely with his results in Miami. His 93.1 MPH average exit velocity on fly balls is not far off from the 93.9 he averaged over his last three years in Florida (Statcast data is only available since 2015). If Yelich did hit his fly balls with less authority this year than he has for much of his career, it was not by much.
After diving into the batted ball side of things, we’ll wrap up by going through the veteran outfielder’s plate discipline metrics. As mentioned previously, Yelich was actually a bit more aggressive this year than he was for the first five years of his career. He took fewer called strikes and swung at the first pitch more often.
Yelich’s ball-strike recognition was arguably the best its ever been. As his swing tendencies reverted closer to his Marlins form, pitchers returned to throwing him pitches in the zone at the rate they used to. There was just one new page in this seemingly old book. While Yelich’s zone rate when ahead or behind in the count stayed nearly identical, pitchers were more aggressive in the zone in even counts. Yelich did swing slightly more at pitches in these counts (33.5% to 35.7%), for what it’s worth.
The main difference between Marlins Yelich and 2021 Yelich in terms of plate discipline was both discernible via the eye test and evident in the stats: he was swinging through hittable fastballs. From 2013-2017, Yelich’s whiff rate on fastballs in the strike zone was an elite 10.2%. In 2021, it was 15.3%. That figure doesn’t include the numerous pitches down the middle that he fouled back instead of driving. Pitchers threw 53.5% of their fastballs in the zone against Yelich; that was an increase of only two percentage points from his Marlins career, but it was a career-high.
As Yelich and the Brewers look for answers to get him back on track, it is important to remember that there have been two distinct versions of the 29-year-old to this point in his career. For his first five seasons, he had one of the highest ground ball rates in the league, but he still posted solid slash lines and demonstrated consistent gap power. After coming to Milwaukee, he turned into one of the league’s best power hitters.
In 2021, Yelich reverted to his previous form in many ways, but the results did not match what he accomplished in Miami. He missed more fastballs that are normally in his wheelhouse, and it did not help that he experienced some tough luck on the balls he did square up.
The key takeaway is that Yelich’s approach was not responsible for him being merely average offensively. It may have seemed like he was letting too many strikes go by or grounding out too often, but that was just how we perceived it in the moment. If Yelich had been having an overall strong season, we wouldn’t have paid extra attention to every called strike he took and every ground ball he hit. When he was struggling, those things stood out more as we desperately searched for answers. It led us to look for flaws in a place where there weren’t any.
It’s also important to remember that Yelich is not returning to 2018 and 2019 form again no matter what. Those were always going to be the best two years of his career, and the Brewers knew that when they gave him the largest contract in franchise history. If Yelich can provide an OPS in the upper .800s or better for most of his deal, it will be a fruitful partnership for both sides.
Knowing that Yelich doesn’t need to rewire his approach at the plate is crucial for the Brewers as they move forward. He is still a proven hitter at baseball’s highest level, and they don’t want to make unnecessary changes that could end up making things worse. Instead, the Brewers should head into the offseason knowing that he most likely has a minor mechanical issue.
The video does not look all that different from 2018 and 2019 to 2021. A small mechanical tweak—one that might not be noticeable to the fan watching on TV—may be all it takes to help Yelich drop the bat head on fastballs with greater consistency. From there, better luck on the balls he squares up ought to take care of the rest.
Rest assured, the Brewers can fix Christian Yelich. There’s not as much to fix as you think.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.