The All-Star break is approaching, and Christian Yelich has five home runs. That low total is partially due to multiple stints on the injured list with an ailing back, but the former MVP currently carries an odd .233/.398/.367 slash line. His on-base percentage is the third-best of his career, and it has helped him manage a solid 116 wRC+. Simultaneously, both his batting average and slugging percentage are personal worsts by far.
Walks are responsible for the majority of Yelich’s offensive value this season. He is drawing a base on balls in 20.3% of his plate appearances, which would lead the league if he had enough trips to the plate to qualify. Several analysts have concluded that Yelich is being too passive. After all, his 37.9% swing rate is the second-lowest of his career, and he had a monster 2019 campaign when he offered at a career-high 45.2% of pitches seen.
What if we have been thinking about it all wrong? Yelich is chasing just 21.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone. Swinging at balls rarely ends well for any hitter, and Yelich is no different. He has a career .172 batting average and .250 slugging percentage on pitches outside of the strike zone. Spitting on them is helping Yelich’s slash line, not sinking it.
It’s not as if Yelich is watching significantly more strikes go by than he typically has. His 2019 is the outlier here, not his current season. The outfielder’s 63.4% Z-Swing% and 17.3% called strike percentage are nearly identical to his career marks of 64.6% and 17.6%, respectively. It is important to remember that even before he turned into a superstar in Milwaukee, Yelich batted .290 across five seasons with the Miami Marlins. He did so with a similar zone swing rate to what we’re seeing now. The difference is that he is now laying off more poor pitches that he cannot do much with anyway. This should not be holding him back.
If Yelich is not being too passive, then what is the issue? Instead of looking at how often he swings, we should be focused on what happens when he swings. In addition to his higher walk rate, there is another notable difference between the Miami version of Yelich and his current self. He is no longer doing damage on pitches he used to feast on. Below are Yelich’s numbers against pitches over the heart of the plate by season.
Yelich used to do serious damage against pitches over the plate. Even before he transformed into a power hitter, he still racked up hits on these pitches. The average MLB hitter is batting .304 with a .552 slugging percentage, and .351 wOBA this season on pitches over the heart of the plate. Yelich falls well short of each of those marks. Additionally, is failing to make contact on meatballs at the worst rate of his career.
Speaking of making contact, the 29-year-old is struggling to touch pitches in the strike zone, something that has never before been an issue for him. The sudden decline over the past two calendar years is dramatic.
2019 Yelich benefited from swinging more often because he was punishing the ball when he swung. He was in the midst of the best stretch of his career. The current version of Yelich is not doing that. He is swinging and missing more than ever before, including on pitches that should be in his wheelhouse. What happens when he does make contact? The star’s 53.1% hard-hit rate remains elite, but he is pounding the ball into the ground instead of driving it. His average launch angle of 2.7 degrees is tied for the lowest of his career. Yelich is not trying to hit more ground balls. He is just struggling to barrel pitches up. Is swinging more often really going to help him if those swings are poor ones?
We should not take these discouraging metrics as evidence that Yelich is broken. For now, they simply indicate that he is struggling to find his swing. Yelich sustained a knee injury in late 2019, spent the winter doing rehab, played through a strange start-and-stop 2020 season, and has dealt with ongoing back problems in 2021. A sequence like that can easily leave a hitter in a tough place mechanically. Yelich took part in an extended batting practice session with hitting coach Andy Haines on Friday afternoon. He is putting the work in to get back on track.
Once Yelich starts to feel more comfortable in the box and is putting better swings on the ball, he may start to be more aggressive. For now, he will continue to swing at strikes at the rate he has for much of his career. He is smart to take what opposing pitchers give him and draw walks when they do not throw him strikes.
Yelich may not be hitting, but he is still providing value by getting on base. It should be encouraging that he is not getting anxious and expanding his zone as he struggles to find his best swing. That swing will return eventually. In the meantime, it is worth being patient with the former MVP.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.