“You’re going to see really good players have really bad years.”
Those words, spoken by Christian Yelich before the start of the pandemic-shortened 2020 MLB season, forecasted the former MVP’s own struggles last summer. Sure, it was a smaller sample size after a lengthy layoff with a disjointed preseason training schedule and a season played without fans amidst an ongoing public health crisis, but Yelich summed things up perfectly by saying “I thought I was pretty much all-around terrible. It just wasn’t good.”
Fresh off signing a franchise-record 9-year, $215 mil contract last March, Yelich endured the worst offensive season of his career. After hitting a combined .327/.415/.631 during his first two seasons with the Crew — winning consecutive batting titles and an MVP award — Christian’s line cratered to .205/.356/.430 in 247 plate appearances in 2020. That did still translate to an above-average 113 wRC+, but it was also the worst mark of his career and a far cry from the 171 wRC+ he posted during 2018-19.
Yelich never quite looked comfortable at the plate last year, and it showed up in a drastically reduced swing rate. He offered at only 34.6% of the pitches he saw in 2020, down from the 44-45% range during the previous two seasons. As a result, he was often behind in the count and wound up punching out in a whopping 30.8% of his plate appearances, a career-worst and an increase of 10+ percentage points over each of his previous six seasons.
Yelich did also walk at a career-best 18.6% rate last summer, leading to a healthy on-base percentage despite the low batting average. And, when he did manage to put the ball in play, he still did so with authority. He posted a career-highs in both average exit velocity (finishing in the league’s 99th percentile) and hard contact rate (98th percentile) while barreling up the ball at a rate within the top 20% of the league. Yelich’s .259 batting average on balls in play was nearly 100 points below his career total; Statcast’s expected statistics though he should’ve hit another 43 points higher (.248 expected batting average) and finished with a weighted on-base average another 32 points betters (.375 xwOBA) based on the quality of his batted balls, suggesting that some bad luck may have been involved in Yelich’s struggles last summer.
Yelich worked with friend and the team’s hitting coach Andy Haines during the offseason, and no one around the organization seems particularly concerned about whether or not he’ll bounce back in 2021. Certainly the Brewers will need him to do so in order for their offense to improve now and in the future; the franchise has another $200+ million riding on it, after all. Yelich suggested earlier during Spring Training that there were some specific things he was working on, without going into much detail. But the work appears to be paying off, as he’s hit .391/.481/.870 with three home runs and a pair of doubles in 23 at-bats during Cactus League play.
Yelich has been plagued by recurring back issues during his time in Milwaukee and has missed time in the past, but the Brewers should be well-covered in the case of his absence this year. Jackie Bradley, Jr. was brought on late in the offseason, giving the Brewers the ability to rotate Yelich, JBJ, Lorenzo Cain, and Avisail Garcia as four starting-caliber outfielders for three spots. Tyrone Taylor, Billy McKinney, and Derek Fisher have each impressed during camp as well as they compete for a final spot on the bench.
In the Minors
The Brewers added some interesting minor league free agents who can cover the outfield in Dylan Cozens, Dustin Peterson, Pablo Reyes, and Jamie Westbrook. Corey Ray still exists and is facing a big season as he hopes to avoid becoming a draft bust. Cooper Hummel and Chad Spanberger should be providing depth at the upper levels of the minors, too. Lower on down the ladder we’ll start finding top prospects like Garrett Mitchell, Tristen Lutz, Carlos Rodriguez, Micah Bello, Larry Ernesto, Joe Gray, Hedbert Perez, and Eduarqui Fernandez.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant