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It’s make or break time for Christian Yelich

Yelich began the year at his best and has since been at his worst. The rest of the first half will shed light on what kind of player he is moving forward.

San Diego Padres v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

It’s been an interesting last few years for Christian Yelich.

After winning the National League Most Valuable Player in 2018, Yelich’s run as arguably the best player in the Senior Circuit continued into 2019. Before having his season cut short by a broken kneecap, he smashed 44 home runs and led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS.

In the abbreviated 2020 season, Yelich continued to hit for power, but his strikeout rate jumped by 10 percentage points, and he batted just .205. Nonetheless, he still posted a productive 112 wRC+.

The power dried up the following year. Last season, he slugged just .373 and finished with a 101 wRC+, both career-worsts.

This year, Yelich is again on pace for the worst campaign of his career. At first glance, things look even worse than they did in 2021: a .224/.315/.361 line, 92 wRC+, and 25% strikeout rate.

However, that overall line does not accurately reflect how his season has played out to date.

In 55 games, it’s essentially been a tale of two seasons for Yelich. Through his first 31 games, he looked eerily similar to the player who took the league by storm in 2018 and 2019. Since then, his offensive production has cratered.

A Tale of Two Seasons: Christian Yelich in 2022

Date Games PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ wOBA xwOBA xwOBAcon K% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle Barrel% Hard Hit%
Date Games PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ wOBA xwOBA xwOBAcon K% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle Barrel% Hard Hit%
April 7-May 11 31 132 .259 .356 .482 .838 132 .364 .417 .500 22.0% 92.3 8.4 18.8% 55.3%
May 13-June 5 22 95 .165 .253 .200 .453 34 .216 .271 .338 30.5% 90.9 0.8 1.8% 46.4%
Data from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs

Over the first month-plus of the season, Yelich hit like his past self. His slash line may not have quite matched his MVP levels, but the underlying metrics did.

From 2018 through 2019, Yelich struck out 21% of the time; when he put the ball in play, he averaged a 49.8% hard contact rate, 92.9 mph exit velocity, 13.9% barrel rate, and 7.9-degree launch angle. His xwOBA on contact was .506.

Again, nearly a dead ringer for his first 31 games of 2022.

The discrepancies in the slash lines can be chalked up to the deadening of the previously-juiced baseball and a little bit of bad luck. The Brewers left fielder was truly hitting like the MVP version.

After hitting for his third career cycle against the Reds on May 11, Yelich sat at 132 plate appearances and 85 batted balls on the season. Those are the benchmarks at which point many offensive metrics begin to stabilize.

In other words, Yelich was sitting right on the line that differentiates between an early-season hot streak and legitimate improvement.

As such, it’s tough to blame media pundits and fans who began to express optimism that Yelich had returned to form after a couple of seasons in which he looked off.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Yelich turned into this season’s version of Lorenzo Cain. His strikeout rate jumped. While his hard-hit rate has remained strong, he stopped driving the ball almost completely, averaging a launch angle of just 0.8 degrees and managing just one barrel.

This 22-game sample does not hold any predictive power. Slumps are part of the game. Yelich will not post a sub-.500 OPS for the rest of the season. However, it’s less than ideal timing in a pivotal prove-it year.

Extenuating circumstances made analyzing Yelich’s struggles even more complicated. In 2020, it was the unprecedented playing environment of the COVID season; in 2021, it was stints on the injured list due to illness and back pain. For these reasons, it made sense to refrain from pushing the panic button.

Last season, many of Yelich’s underlying numbers mirrored those from his days with the Marlins, indicating that he was never that far off from being a productive hitter. Assuming he got a normal playing environment and was in good health—both of which have been the case—this season would be Yelich’s chance to get back on track before reaching a point of grave concern.

That threshold is rapidly approaching. It’s June 9, and Yelich has a .679 OPS. Unless he is trying to play through an injury or sustains a new one within the next few weeks, the excuses mentioned above that were valid for the last two years will soon no longer be applicable.

It’s difficult to interpret Yelich’s season so far. He was at his best for just over a month to begin the year. He has since been at his worst. The former stretch was barely long enough to believe that he may have rediscovered himself at the plate, and the latter is not long enough to conclude that his days as a productive hitter are over.

After seeing both extremes from him over the season’s first two months, the Brewers are about to discover who the real Yelich is. The dust will soon settle after an up-and-down 33 months.

The kind of player who emerges will dramatically influence how the Brewers approach their offense long-term. If Yelich’s numbers remain poor at the end of the first half, Craig Counsell will not be able to reasonably justify slotting him third in the batting order (or in any run-producing role, for that matter).

Fans have long clamored for the addition of a big bat, but the Brewers have continued to operate as if they already have that bat in Yelich. Since his 2018 breakout, they have built their lineups around him and counted on him to compensate for the general mediocrity of the rest of their offense. If Yelich’s days as a middle-of-the-order bat are behind him, such an approach is no longer viable.

Regardless of his performance, the Brewers and Yelich are locked into a long-term commitment. He is under contract for $26 million annually through the 2028 season and has a full no-trade clause. No matter what, he’ll have a role on the team. However, his output on the field, not his salary, should determine that role.

It’s not a stretch to say that Yelich could snap out of his slump and recapture what he seemingly found at the start of the season. He could also revert to the player he was last season, whose contributions come primarily from drawing walks and immaculate baserunning. There is value in such a skill set, but it’s not the role the Brewers are paying him to fill.

Yelich has collected three hits in the first two games of Milwaukee’s current series against the Phillies. He has struck out just once, and the pitch in question was an inside fastball off the plate that was called for strike three. However, all of his knocks have been singles, including an infield hit.

The Brewers are about to see what kind of player Yelich truly is at this stage of his career. What they discover will have significant long-term implications for the franchise.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.