What Christian Yelich Hasn’t Done Once

I’m not gonna lie to you — there are a lot of things Christian Yelich hasn’t done once. Uncountable things. Infinite things. He hasn’t eclipsed 20 home runs in a season. He hasn’t hit a triple on the road. He hasn’t signed an eight-figure contract. He hasn’t grown to six and a half feet tall. He hasn’t attended Oberlin College, and he hasn’t been drafted by the Phillies. He hasn’t survived an accidental fall from the Golden Gate bridge, nor has he survived an intentional fall from the same. Depending on how you look at it, Christian Yelich hasn’t lived much of a life. But he is doing pretty well at his job at an unusually young age, and let’s talk about something specific he has yet to include in his numbers. You can think of this as an indicator of success, to go along with the other, more traditional indicators of success, like, batting average.

We’ll make use of batted-ball information! We’ve got that on FanGraphs stretching back to 2002. Since 2002, 790 batters have put at least 500 balls in play. Yelich is now among them, as of not long ago. Within the sample, no one’s hit more infield flies than Vernon Wells, at 376. He has a 41-pop lead on Albert Pujols. No one’s hit a greater rate of infield flies than Eric Byrnes, who’s just in front of Tony Batista. At the other extreme are known pop-up avoiders. You know about Joey Votto. Joe Mauer doesn’t hit pop-ups, either. For all his faults, Ryan Howard belongs in this same group, as does Derek Jeter. As for Yelich? He’s at 0. He doesn’t have an infield fly to his name. He is currently the only such batter in the given player pool.

Yelich is beyond 500 balls in play, and he’s right around 800 plate appearances. These have been his first 800 plate appearances in the major leagues, but while there have been ups and downs, there haven’t been many mis-hit fly balls. And the reason couldn’t really be clearer: Yelich, consistently, makes solid contact. He makes solid line-drive contact with a short, level swing. Even before he was drafted, his scouting report highlighted his sweet, sweet swing. That’s an adjective that’s repeated itself over and over. Plenty of players have been described as possessing sweet lefty swings, but oftentimes something goes wrong. Maybe a hitch develops. Maybe there’s a vulnerability. Maybe the swing simply deteriorates, or maybe the player doesn’t have a great eye. Yelich has what he needs. He has the swing, and he has the eye to know when and how to use it.

And he’s a natural righty who just swings from the left side because whatever. This isn’t a skill he’s recently developed. In the minor leagues, Yelich put just about 900 balls in play. He was tagged with eight pop-ups, for a rate a hair below 1%. The average is about 7%. Yelich never hit more than three pop-ups in a year, which helps to explain his minor-league .379 BABIP. And with no pop-ups in the majors, that helps to explain his big-league .371 BABIP.

Let’s consider something. Obviously, Yelich doesn’t pop the ball up. He’s also shown a decent amount of home-run power. His pop-up rate has been 2.6 standard deviations better than the mean. His home-run rate has been a fraction of one standard deviation better than the mean. Let’s group the players, between 2002 – 2014, with average or better home-run rates, and pop-up rates better by at least, I don’t know, 1.5 standard deviations. Including Yelich, this yields a group of 21 players. They’ve averaged a .334 BABIP, and a 121 wRC+. Now let’s ignore home-run power and just look at guys with pop-up rates better by at least 2 standard deviations. Then you have an average .337 BABIP. These are guys who make consistent, hard contact. These are guys who sustain above-average hit rates, because they’re quality hitters. Yelich’s early hit numbers are eye-popping, but it’s hard to say he’s not earning them.

If you examine Yelich closely, you’ll see he’s not really a pull hitter. He is capable of pulling the ball:

YelichPull

…but, more often, he’ll spray grounders and line drives:

YelichOppo

And so, since last year, we find Yelich in the top 6% of batters hitting to the opposite field. We also find him in the top 6% of batters going up the middle. He’s tough to pitch and he’s tough to defend, and he’s certainly not traditionally shiftable. A level swing, when paired with a good-enough eye, can make for an opponent who’s extremely frustrating.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I have to be honest. According to our data, Yelich hasn’t hit a single infield fly. That means he hasn’t hit a pop no more than 140 feet from home plate. According to MLB.com data, Yelich has hit a pair of pop-ups. They’re hard to argue with, when you see them:

YelichPop1

YelichPop2

And here’s one that’s close:

YelichMaybe

That last one was caught by an outfielder, but it also could’ve been caught by an infielder, and it was in basically the same spot as the ball in the previous .gif. All of these wound up more than 140 feet from home plate, but these were more pop flies than anything else.

So it’s not like Yelich hasn’t made any pop-up contact. It’s happened. It’s just happened infrequently. Our pages have seven regular batters who haven’t popped up this year:

By MLB.com data, Yelich has popped up twice. None of those other guys have popped up less than thrice. So Yelich still gets to lead, and MLB.com doesn’t think he hit a single pop-up last year in his extended debut.

At some point, you have to draw a line. You have to define what is and is not a pop-up, and that line is going to be arbitrary. By one arbitrary definition, Yelich hasn’t popped out. By another, he has, two times. But really, this is just a proxy for “easy outs hit into”. Everybody hits into easy outs from time to time, so it’s a matter of rates, and Yelich’s rate so far has been outstandingly low, through several hundred trips to the plate. That supports his early hit totals, and that bodes well for his big-league future, as he doesn’t turn 23 until December. Yelich is younger than Arismendy Alcantara, Gregory Polanco, Avisail Garcia, and Oswaldo Arcia. Even if power never comes in spades, that swing is that swing, and Yelich could further improve his understanding of the strike zone.

Has anyone ever bothered to define a “pure hitter”? It seems to me like Christian Yelich is a pure hitter. That doesn’t mean he’s among the very best hitters in the league, but his game is so simple to understand. He swings at the right pitches and he hits them on a line. Christian Yelich is fundamental hitting, to an extent that few can achieve.




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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.


30 Responses to “What Christian Yelich Hasn’t Done Once”

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  1. RMR says:

    So you’re saying Yelich is pulling a Votto?

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    • boringdan says:

      He hasn’t strictly pulled a Votto. He’s also up the middled some Votto and sprayed some opposite field Votto.

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      • a eskpert says:

        Votto has very good power, though.

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        • Eephus says:

          But he sucks at being an RBI-machine!!

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        • Grant says:

          So does Yelich by HR/FB% and Avg fly ball distance. There’s a pretty sizable difference between those two home park factors as well.

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        • james says:

          Votto for the most part was a 25-30 hr player, at 23 yelich is already a 15-20hr type player. there is nothing that says he cannot develop enough power, also anecdotally, i think Votto plays in a hitters park and Yelich in a pitchers park, and that could explain some of the power differential.

          Yelich is one of my favorite young players, he really does look like a 12 year old playing in the bigs.

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  2. Thanks, Comcast says:

    “At some point, you have to draw a line. You have to define what is and is not a pop-up, and that line is going to be arbitrary.”

    This is still slightly arbitrary, but I’d set the cutoff at flyballs that would score a runner (of average speed) from 3rd on a sac fly. Basically, a ball that has a slim chance of being a productive out.

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    • jdbolick says:

      That’s still pretty arbitrary. Why not just make a distinction between infield pop-ups and all other kinds since the dimensions of the infield are defined?

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      • TKDC says:

        Yeah, it seems like it is in the name. Infield pop ups are pop ups that are caught on the infield (I’d add foul territory that is not past the infield too). I think Thanks, Comcast’s definition is pretty good for just defining all pop ups, but it might be easier to just base it on the trajectory off the bat. Pick some arbitrary trajectory that looks like a pop up and anything that steep or steeper is a pop up.

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  3. Cody says:

    “He hasn’t survived an accidental fall from the Golden Gate bridge, nor has he survived an intentional fall from the same.”

    Someone recently watched The Bridge didn’t they?

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  4. stonepie says:

    is it safe to say that yelich is a .360+ babip hitter going forward?

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    • Dino says:

      It depends on what you mean by “safe.”

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    • bstar says:

      According to this article, the point where the signal is louder than the noise for BAbip is around 1000 BIP. Yelich is at 500 BIP, so he’s only halfway there, but his minor-league BAbip looks like it would be pretty similar if we gave it a slight downward adjustment.

      http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=17659

      Still, there was another young leftfielder from the Marlins who put up a .350ish BAbip in his first 900 PA: Chris Coghlan in 2007-8.

      Coghlan regressed, to say the least, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how much better Yelich already is than CC. Barring an injury-based drastic change to his true-talent level, I think Yelich is either going to be a star or play a very long time in the bigs as a good player.

      And, FWIW, Coghlan still has a .317 career BAbip. Maybe we could set that as Yelich’s “floor” for where his BAbip could end up and an Austin Jackson/Chris Johnson BAbip as his ceiling.

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  5. Justice says:

    With a 62.8% groundball rate, Yelich trails only Jeter and Revere among qualified hitters. Batting balls into the ground is a decent way to not pop up.

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    • Emcee Peepants says:

      Indeed, he’s only hit 57 total fly balls all year and has the second lowest FB% to Revere at 16.7%. His 20/60/20 batted ball profile looks a lot like Jeter’s from 2010 to present, but with a higher HR/FB%. Unless he cuts down on the K’s and brings the average up, seems like a pretty “meh” profile for a corner outfielder (even acknowledging that he is not quite 23).

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  6. JCCfromDC says:

    I think that every Braves fan in existence would have a problem calling that second popup an “infield fly.” Too soon …

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  7. Paul Zummo says:

    He also never been in my kitchen.

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  8. Impossibles says:

    Are foul pop outs recorded anywhere?

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  9. #keepnotgraphs says:

    Shout out to Oberlin College.

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  10. Mike13 says:

    He will be in this league a long time

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  11. James says:

    love getting to watch Yelich every day. Almost as much as Stanton. 4.5 WAR in your first 170 games aint too shabby… especially for the 8th youngest player in the NL.

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  12. BenRevereDoesSteroids says:

    What a click bait headline. Raise your fucking standards, Fangraphs.

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  13. FIP'n good says:

    Yea, Yelich looks like a star going forward to me! *************(the rest edited because it belonged in a Rotographs comment)

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  14. eliasll says:

    His AVG fly ball distance is 291 ft, same as Trout, Choo and Adam Jones.
    He hits a lot of ground balls because his swing is flat and get on top of the ball most of the time, hard hit grounders that lead to high BABIP. I would not be surprised to see .300/.400/.480 in the near future.

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