Come Fall In Love With Christian Yelich’s Potential

We don’t really know what to make of hitting coaches, but we know what to make of hitters, and we know what to make of Barry Bonds, so Bonds linking up with the Marlins is at least greatly intriguing. If you let yourself get carried away by your own imagination, you can see Giancarlo Stanton breaking Bonds’ own dinger record. Perhaps more realistically, it’s going to be interesting to see whether Bonds can tap into Marcell Ozuna‘s considerable offensive reserves. With Ozuna sticking around in Miami after an active stretch of rumors, which way he goes will play a big role in which way the Marlins go.

For my taste, though, I’m the most captivated by Christian Yelich. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with Bonds, necessarily; I’d be equally captivated if Bonds were somewhere else. But, I think we know about and have observed Giancarlo Stanton’s ceiling. Marcell Ozuna has been good before, but I get the sense he’ll always be streaky. Christian Yelich seems steady, and he seems like he is what he is, yet I think his upside is massive. And I think Yelich stands a good chance of getting there. Quietly, Yelich has hinted at a star-level future.

Yelich has already been a four-win player before. The Marlins already love him, and they’ve already given him a long-term contract. Yelich isn’t a sleeper, and he’s already sort of broken out, in that he’s consistently been an above-average player. Some things you might already know about the 24-year-old Yelich: he’s put up three straight years with a 117 wRC+. He’s put the majority of his batted balls on the ground. He has just one infield fly to his name, by our records, over almost 1,500 trips to the plate. This forms the core of a popular position: Yelich is a fantastic singles hitter, but he’ll probably never hit for power.

For sure, there’s no ignoring the grounders. It’s just, you don’t want to oversimplify. For starters, how about a home/road split? Since 2002, here are the biggest negative differences between home and road rates of homers per fly ball:

Home Run Home/Road Splits, 2002 – 2015
Player Home HR/FB Road HR/FB Difference
Christian Yelich 4.5% 18.7% 14.2%
Ben Grieve 12.8% 22.9% 10.1%
Jordy Mercer 3.1% 11.4% 8.3%
Brandon Belt 7.7% 16.0% 8.3%
Justin Ruggiano 10.0% 18.3% 8.3%
Benito Santiago 7.3% 14.4% 7.1%
Rocco Baldelli 8.2% 15.0% 6.8%
Brandon Moss 11.4% 18.2% 6.8%
Justin Maxwell 13.0% 19.7% 6.7%
Jacque Jones 15.4% 21.7% 6.3%

There’s Yelich, right at the top. He’s got plenty of career to go, but as I look at him right now, he has three career homers in Miami, and 17 career homers in not Miami. Yelich’s power has been a little hidden by an unfavorable power ballpark, and that same ballpark is having its most extreme fence brought in this winter. Yelich has more pop than his surface numbers, is the point. His strength has been a little suppressed, because he likes to hit fly balls up the middle, which Marlins Park has discouraged.

Yelich doesn’t just thrive on hitting the ball up the middle. He also thrives on hitting the ball the other way. For a young player, he’s already demonstrated an incredible ability to spray the ball, and if you combine center-field and opposite-field wRC+, Yelich ranks 11th-best since 2002. He’s tied with Shin-Soo Choo and a point behind Stanton, and Yelich’s real weakness to this point has been hitting the ball to right. The second of three tables: the biggest negative wRC+ differences when pulling the ball.

Pull vs. non-Pull wRC+, 2002 – 2015
Player Pull wRC+ non-Pull wRC+ Difference
Christian Yelich 69 188 -119
Larry Bigbie 68 171 -103
Julio Franco 60 159 -99
Joe Mauer 74 163 -89
Ryan Howard 153 241 -88
Jose Abreu 152 239 -87
David Freese 103 182 -79
Joey Votto 145 218 -73
Sean Burroughs 51 118 -67
Mark Teahen 88 154 -66

Yelich hasn’t been good as a pull hitter yet, but I think every team would prefer it this way, as opposed to the other way around. Hitters can learn to be selective, and Yelich controls the strike zone better than most hitters do. He’s not incapable of pulling the ball with authority:

…he just hasn’t done a lot of it. But as Yelich matures, he can start looking for pitches to drive, deciding in the moment whether to pull or whether to go with the pitch somewhere else. It seems like he’s sufficiently gifted, and what he’s done to the other fields bodes well for what he could do to right.

And there’s one more thing. As you know, we’ve started displaying hard-hit rate, but then, regular hard-hit rate folds everything in. I prefer to look at the hard-hit rate on just flies and liners, because I don’t care much about well-hit ground balls. So: the last three years, nearly 400 players have hit at least 200 batted balls in the air. Here are the leaders in good air contact:

Fly + Liner Hard-Hit Rate, 2013 – 2015
Player FB + LD Hard%
Christian Yelich 375 57%
Paul Goldschmidt 670 55%
David Ortiz 818 54%
Pedro Alvarez 516 54%
Giancarlo Stanton 502 53%
Miguel Cabrera 789 52%
Ryan Braun 501 52%
Chris Davis 700 51%
Khris Davis 450 51%
Adam Lind 545 51%

It’s Yelich! It’s Yelich over Goldschmidt. It’s Yelich over Stanton. It’s Yelich over Cabrera. It’s Yelich over everyone. Christian Yelich hasn’t hit that many balls in the air, relatively speaking, but when he has, he’s hit them solidly more than any other player, at least by this measure. Of course, hard hits aren’t created equal, and Yelich can’t come close to matching Stanton’s peak power. But the whole point is just to make good contact. You don’t need Stanton-level power. Nobody needs Stanton-level power. You just need good bat speed and good bat-to-ball skills, and Yelich appears to be outstanding. He’s regularly punished the ball, and he’s still young enough you figure he can start lifting a few more batted balls off the grass.

Through age 23, Yelich has fought off all challenges. He’s been a quality all-around player, and he’s been a tremendous opposite-field hitter at the top of the Marlins’ lineup. He’s hit more grounders than almost anyone, but when he’s managed to put the ball in the air, he’s killed it, and now he can conceivably start to consolidate. And he might’ve already started; in the second half last year, he dropped his grounder rate to 55%, and he posted a 138 wRC+. Just from the start of September, he dropped his grounder rate to 50%, and he posted a 162 wRC+. Everything got better last year as Yelich put a back injury behind him, and as you look into the future, you can see a version of Yelich with more flies and more drives to right. That version of Yelich would be a franchise player, and while it’s not guaranteed to come together, Yelich couldn’t do much to be more promising. Maybe Barry Bonds will help him unlock the rest of his upside. Or maybe Bonds will just sit back and watch him like the rest of us.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza
3 months 5 days ago

…again?

Drew Fairservice
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3 months 5 days ago

I’m impressed you were able to write this piece without using any heart eyes emojis. I could not.

Trey Baughn
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Trey Baughn
3 months 5 days ago

Terrific article

Bat
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Bat
3 months 5 days ago

Just off the top of my head, but for Yelich’s career – something like a (very) poor man’s Wade Boggs?

Or a better version of Dave Magadan?

tz
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tz
3 months 5 days ago

More like a cross between Bernie Williams and Jason Heyward.

evo34
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evo34
3 months 5 days ago

Andy Van Slyke, Shawn Green or Shin Soo Choo — if things go well.

igloo
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igloo
3 months 5 days ago

I loved Yelich before this. I love him even more now!

jdbolick
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3 months 5 days ago

If you look at the total number of “hard hit” line drives and fly-balls rather than the percentage of line drives and fly-balls that were “hard hit,” Yelich goes from the top of the list down close to the bottom. The percentage is misleadingly high both because of the aforementioned lack of infield fly-balls and the extraordinary ground-ball rate. Furthermore, his average distance on the fly-balls he does hit is not in any way exceptional.

MustBunique
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3 months 5 days ago

How are percentages misleadingly high unless you don’t understand what a percentage is?

jdbolick
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3 months 5 days ago

Because they depend on context that isn’t always provided. Jeff is using the “Fly + Liner Hard-Hit Rate” percentage to argue that Yelich has notable untapped power potential when if you look at the totals rather than the rate, the reason for that optimism vanishes completely.

MustBunique
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3 months 5 days ago

The raw number of FB+LD is right in the table. Hitting the ball hard is a prerequisite for hitting home runs. Jeff is showing that he hits the ball hard. His exit velocities show the same thing. I think it will take a mechanical adjustment to see an actual increase in his homer totals. That can happen, like JD Martinez. And as Jeff says, maybe Bonds can help him make that change.

tz
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tz
3 months 5 days ago

Here’s my take on Yelich’s potential.

Look at his career splits. He has roughly one full season each of home PA and road PA:

http://www.fangraphs.com/statsplits.aspx?playerid=11477&position=OF&season=0

Though he had about the same number of extra-base hits in each, look at how they split up:

Home: 37 doubles, 9 triples, 3 homers
Road: 35 doubles, 0 triples, 17 homers

It’s a pretty safe bet that a number of those triples at home would have been homers anywhere else. So we can feel fairly safe in saying the Marlins Stadium has hurt Yelich’s HR totals.

But the more interesting breakdown is this:

Home GB/FB: 4.57
Road GB/FB: 3.34

That road groundball ratio is already very high. At home, however, against pitchers who we can assume are trying as much as possible to induce lazy OF flyballs because of the park’s dimensions, Yelich has actually increased his GB ratio by a lot. In other words, it appears he is consciously looking to adjust his batted ball exit angle lower in Miami, and he’s skilled enough to do this.

So now that the Marlins are bringing their fences in, there’s a good chance of (1) more of Yelich’s OF fly balls clearing the fence and (2) Yelich successfully adjusting his approach to be similar to what he does on the road.

In other words, what Jeff said.

jdbolick
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3 months 5 days ago

People have been talking about Yelich’s potential for years, but rehashing it again would be fine if that was based on genuinely compelling information instead of a percentage statistic that is misleading when stripped of context. If Christian Yelich had extraordinary batted ball distances on the rare occasions when he does hit fly-balls, that would mean something, but he doesn’t. His “Fly + Liner Hard-Hit Rate” is exceptional due to the complete lack of infield flies suppressing that rate as well as a low percentage of fly-balls in general, not because he actually hits fly-balls very hard. Once you introduce that context, there isn’t much power potential in evidence even if he did radically change his swing to produce a massive increase in fly-balls, which history tells us is extraordinarily unlikely to happen.

tz
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tz
3 months 5 days ago

@jd, that’s why I went with mostly “old-school” stats in my post above, since there is a real chance what you’re saying about the Hard% on FB+Liners is enough of an issue to put cold water on Jeff’s last chart. What jumped out to me is that Yelich’s counting stats on the road show a guy who already has some HR pop, not like Stanton but more like peak Jeter or Mauer.

The fact that his batted-ball results vary the way they do between his home and road games is a sign that he has the ability to tailor his hitting approach. For a decent-sized 24-year old with those kinds of skills, I wouldn’t rule out a bump up in power over the next few years.

jdbolick
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3 months 5 days ago

Not hitting infield flies is good

I absolutely agree with you, as I’ve been obsessed with IFFB rates for years. Yelich is a good young hitter, but I do not see the power potential you’re suggesting.

tz:
It would be unusual for a batter to have that much control over his approach. Isn’t that the explanation for why Rockies hitters struggle on the road, because it’s difficult to have one approach in Coors and then do something different everywhere else? Stanton has a 3% higher ground-ball percentage at home, which is half the size of Yelich’s 6%, but may suggest that park effects are at play. Regardless, my point is that even if Yelich does hit slightly fewer ground-balls and the fence is moved in a bit, you’re still looking at Steamer’s ~12 home run projection rather than something dramatic. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Yelich hit a few more home runs. It would be very surprising to see a lot more.

tz
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tz
3 months 5 days ago

@jd, good catch on the possible park effect on the GB%. I checked, though, and it’s only about a 1% higher GB% for the Marlins at home (2013-15). So, not really a huge factor.

As for Coors, a lot of it has to be due to the difference in how the pitches move at Coors, which is probably a lot tougher to adjust for. Don’t think it’s really the same thing.

LeeTro
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LeeTro
3 months 5 days ago

According to the splits data on this site, Yelich pulled 119 balls with a 5% FB rate. It’s hard to have any power numbers when you pull 6 flyballs in a season.

deb81162
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deb81162
3 months 5 days ago

Seriously? You are going that route on the “Fly + Liner Hard-Hit Rate, 2013 – 2015” The difference is that Yelich has about a 30% hard hit rate, Goldschmidt has a 43% and Stanton has around a 50% hard hit rate. THAT’S A HUGE DIFFERENCE. Add in Yelcks .370 BABIP and you can have him. Myself, I like Ozuna’s upside with Bonds as his batting coach. He is at a much lower price tag and higher upside

tz
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tz
3 months 5 days ago

Also, if anyone should have a .370 BABIP, it would be a lefty hitter with good speed who literally uses the whole field AND never pops up. You can’t just regress Yelich’s BABIP to the whole universe of hitters, but to a group of similar type hitters.

I’d guess the Yelich “Famiglia” would have a BABIP somewhere between .340 and .360.

oddlefty
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oddlefty
3 months 5 days ago

Yelich has the sweetest swing since Griffey Jr. He’s going to consistently have a high BABIP because he’s got the skills to smack the ball. He’s got a stern face too.

Baseball4ever
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Baseball4ever
3 months 4 days ago

Please…don’t ever think about putting Yelich is the same sentence as KGJr. Not even close. KGJr.’s career is in the books, him and his 600+ homers, him and his stellar defense, him and his lifetime batting average that overshadows anything Yelich could ever hope to do.

I sincerely hope I am missing out on your sarcastic meter…

oddlefty
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oddlefty
3 months 4 days ago

Hah, I wasn’t trying to compare their careers or say that Yelich’s career will come anywhere close to Griffey’s. It won’t. I just like the way his swing looks, and it reminds me of Griffey’s swing.

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