The fickle nature of fans isn’t new, especially with the rise of social media creating a firestorm of “what have you done for me lately?” Still, it’s hard to fathom how quickly some who follow the Milwaukee Brewers turned on Christian Yelich during and after the 2020 season.
Sure, he had some issues. Even as fans have learned to focus less on batting average, it’s jarring to see the NL’s back-to-back batting champion with a career-worst .205 in that column. And you can’t deny his production levels were below his standards when looking at OPS (.786), SLG (.430), and a career-low .356 OBP.
But did people already forget the elite levels Yelich reached — not only in his MVP 2018 season, but his even better 2019? It would be foolish to trust the results of last season’s 247 plate appearances (small sample alert) instead of the 1,200+ in his previous two seasons. Refresh yourself with how amazing Yelich performed in those years:
.327 AVG/.415 OBP/.631 SLG/1.046 OPS (171 OPS+)
40 HR, 32 doubles, 109 runs, 104 RBI, 26 SB (season averages)
Take a moment to appreciate truly those numbers. Over those two seasons, Yelich was 1st in MLB in average; 2nd in OBP, SLG, OPS; 3rd in home runs; 5th in runs; and 8th in RBI. This despite missing the final 3 weeks of 2019.
A guy doesn’t go from other worldly to journeyman that quickly - particularly on the right side of 30. Between some bad luck and playing in a strange season (including the small sample size), it conspired to create a lot of unnecessary worry for Brewers’ fans.
Let’s start with bad luck as the focus. Luck isn’t the ideal term, but it’s the simplest way to describe a player who is doing lots of things well with little to show for it. A hitter can’t fully manipulate his results, only his process up to contact.
The stat many people quickly look to for “luck” is a player’s BABIP — batting average of balls in play. Yelich’s owns a career .354 BABIP. In 2020, it was just .259 - almost 100 full points lower. That is an insane difference and clearly accounts for a portion of his career-low average last season.
To supplement a stat like BABIP, Statcast metrics give you a different perspective of a hitter’s quality of those connections of bat to ball. Once the ball leaves the lumber, it’s out of his control. Let’s take a look at some of those metrics.
Starting with exit velocity, the speed of the ball coming off the bat. Yelich was in the 99th percentile of exit velocity, averaging 94 mph. That was the best mark of his career and placed him 3rd in MLB behind Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Miguel Sano (and one spot ahead of Mike Trout).
In the same neighborhood, Yelich sat in the 98th percentile in hard hit percentage, measuring the frequency of batted balls hit 95 mph or greater. Yelich ranked 6th in baseball last season with a 55.6 hard hit percentage, also the best in his career and 6.5% better than in 2019. Both exit velocity and hard hit percentage in those ranges would normally mean a player is going to be raking.
Add in that some additional advanced metrics showed Yelich in the 75th percentile or higher in barrel percentage, expected slugging percentage (xSLG) and expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). For example, Yelich’s final numbers showed that based on his quality of contact, his slugging percentage was 46 points below what should be expected, with his wOBA nearly 30 points short.
These are positives when looking forward. Not to mention, it’s not like all of his stats were bad in 2020. Yelich easily had the best walk percentage (BB%) of his career at 18.6%, ranking 5th in MLB last year and a 7.1% increase over his annual average. That contributed to a .356 OBP, good for 22nd in the NL (and 3rd in the NL Central). Not his usual .400+ from the last two years, but still a valuable number in today’s game.
So again, despite some thinking Yelich completely fell off the face of the Earth last season, perception is not always reality. On the flip side, his overall production was below everyone’s expectations and should be addressed. There can cause for some concern, but we should also be fair in recognizing the giant impact from the 2020 pandemic season that negatively affected many players.
The biggest issue for Yelich in 2020 stems from his increased strikeout rate. His strikeout rate ballooned to 30.8%, the 11th-worst mark in MLB. That was a 9.6% jump from his career norm (21.2%). No doubt a concern, but also such a spike that it comes across as an outlier. His swing and miss numbers also increased in 2019, which is partially due to his adjusted focus on hitting for power.
The other area that was a surprise — and perhaps a fluke — was Yelich’s struggles against right-handed pitchers. He owns a career slash line of .301/.391/.504/.895 versus righties. In 2020, the numbers fell off a cliff: .169/.326/.345/.671. That is a shocking deficit and something that may also be an anomaly. Ironically, Yelich put up his best season against southpaws last season (.293/.431/.638/1.068).
With those two major, sudden dips quality, it’s important to question what things may have factored into 2020 looking so different for the stud outfielder. Looking at the strangeness of last season, some things pop out.
A number of players, including J.D. Martinez and Javy Baez, spoke out about the lack of video during games. Both those guys had poor seasons and believe the inability to look over their at-bats and scout in-game was a detriment to their production. Yelich may have been impacted as well, and if you’re a player who relies on the mental side to get an edge, it’s fair to think it played a role.
Another specific issue to the 2020 season raised by players, including other Brewers, was the preseason. The start and stop process, workouts against your own team, and limited live at-bats all were noted as reasons many players never got comfortable. Whether it was issues of routine, timing pitches, seeing the ball — all of it added to the challenge.
There was a number that stood out to me as a possible sign that Yelich was one of those guys who just never got comfortable or into the normal groove as a hitter...
Christian Yelich swung the bat less often than he ever had in his career. Yelich swung at only 34.6% of the pitches he saw. His career average is 44.2% and he had never swung at fewer than 40% of his pitches in any season. From my own far-less-talented experiences as a hitter, when you don’t feel comfortable, you tend to swing the bat less.
Keep in mind, when Yelich was destroying the league in 2018 and 2019, he posted his two highest seasons in swing percentage at 44% and 45.2% respectively. Take that for what it’s worth.
Two other items may have contributed to Yelich scuffling a bit last year. For one, he was coming off a major injury, the first of his career. Even if he was fully healed, the mental side of getting past that injury, especially when it happened hitting, certainly can hurt a batter’s performance.
He had also just signed his 9-year, $215 million contract. Many free agents who sign big deals seem to struggle a bit in that first year. While Yelich wasn’t a free agent signing, that contract could easily add some pressure to a player who in turn may try a bit “too hard” to live up to it.
Hopefully, now a year removed from the new deal and the old injury, Yelich can remove those from his mind. Considering all the stats and metrics, the negative factors unique to 2020, and the understanding of small samples, I’d bet heavily on Yelich returning to elite status in 2021.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference