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:
…but, more often, he’ll spray grounders and line drives:
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:
And here’s one that’s close:
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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