After an MVP-caliber run that spanned the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Christian Yelich experienced a dramatic downturn at the plate. From 2020 through 2022, Yelich slugged .388 with a 108 wRC+.
While he was never going to sustain the .631 slugging percentage and 170 wRC+ he posted at the peak of his career, it was an unexpected decline that created serious ripple effects in the Brewers’ lineup. Instead of being the team’s offensive centerpiece, Yelich has been just another guy. Diminished power has relocated him from the three-hole to the leadoff spot.
At first glance, the early returns in 2023 appear to be yielding similar results. In 167 plate appearances, Yelich has a 112 wRC+.
However, Yelich has experienced an uptick in the power department. After hitting nine home runs in 2021 and 14 last season, he has already clubbed seven long balls by mid-May. His ISO has increased from .130 to .168, and his .430 slugging percentage puts him north of .400 for the first time since 2020.
Three of those seven home runs have come in the last three games as part of an excellent month of May. Since the calendar flipped from April, Yelich is slashing .348/.400/.630 for a 177 wRC+.
It may be easy to write off this hot streak as just that. Yelich has shown flashes of his former self throughout the past three seasons that did not translate into sustained improvement.
Claiming that Yelich has returned to form is indeed a stretch. However, his early performance should not be written off entirely. Yelich is showing signs of life offensively that he has not displayed since his best seasons.
Yelich is making louder contact than he has in years. His 57.8% hard hit rate is a career-high. His 92.9 mph average exit velocity sits nicely between his 2018 and 2019 marks.
The promising trends do not stop there. Yelich’s ground ball rate currently sits at 52.3%, a noted decrease from last year and mirrors his ground ball rate in 2018. His line drive and fly ball rates have also trended in the right direction.
After Yelich’s expected weighted on-base average on contact (xwOBAcon) dipped below .400 in 2021 and 2022, it has shot up to .472 this year. That’s his best mark since 2020.
In other words, Yelich is making more impactful contact than he has in several seasons, and it doesn’t look like a small sample size fluke. Batted ball metrics typically stabilize when the sample reaches 80 balls in play, and Yelich is at 109 batted balls this year.
Yelich is also doing something more specific that he hasn’t accomplished consistently since his MVP run: punishing fastballs and mistake pitches. After a downturn that started in 2020, Yelich’s expected production against fastballs is the best it’s ever been on a monthly basis.
Yelich is also having one of his best months ever when it comes to punishing hittable pitches. According to Statcast, his .502 xwOBA against pitches over the heart of the plate is the third-highest mark of his career behind his 2019 and 2018 seasons. His 99 mph exit velocity on such pitches is a career-best.
Yelich’s .687 xwOBA against pitches over the heart of the plate this month is the highest of any month of his career. His next-best month was September 2018.
Yelich has returned to punishing mistakes by shifting into attack mode, which points to increased comfort in the box. He has gone from one of the game’s most passive hitters on middle-middle pitches to one of the most aggressive. After swinging at 74% and 73.6% of such pitches the past two seasons, Yelich’s middle-middle swing rate has skyrocketed to 88.4%. That’s the ninth-highest rate in baseball.
None of this is to say that Yelich has fully returned to form. The inconsistent production against breaking balls that has plagued him since 2020 remains an issue. His contact rate on pitches in the zone is a career-worst 80.7%.
Yelich is not finding success in the same way he did five years ago, either. Whereas MVP Yelich rode a career-high pull rate to success, this iteration is pulling the ball less (32.1%) and going to the opposite field more than ever (34.9%).
However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is not the same Yelich the Brewers have seen for the last few seasons. This is the most comfortable he has looked in years, and that’s a significant development. A return to MVP form remains highly unlikely, but Yelich appears to be tapping into a higher level of production than what he’s shown in recent seasons.