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Christian Yelich: Modest Success

Top Marlins prospect Christian Yelich quietly reached the majors last season. Usually, prospects of Yelich’s quality come with much trumpeting and fanfare, but the terrible Marlins lineup had owners ignoring him as just another unknown name. Yelich didn’t play enough to be included in our outfielder rankings, but his rate stats were loosely comparable to $10 Norichika Aoki. 2014 will be the lefty hitter’s age 22 season, so expect some growing pains to accompany the high upside.

Over 273 plate appearances, Yelich enjoyed modest success. He posted a .341 wOBA by hitting .288/.370/.396. He settled in as the third hitter in the Marlins lineup. Usually that would be a great spot for fantasy production, but the Marlins lineup was particularly terrible. Players like Donovan Solano, Ed Lucas, and Placido Polanco typically hit ahead of Yelich. Polanco had the best on base percentage of that trio at .315 and Lucas was the best overall with a paltry .289 wOBA. Those performances aren’t going to open up many RBI opportunities.

Yelich is a potential five-category contributor in his prime (and with the proper teammates), but there are some things to worry about in his profile for 2014. As you can probably tell from his .370 OBP, Yelich is willing to take a walk. That should help Giancarlo Stanton see better pitches, which is good for the Marlins lineup as a whole. Yelich’s lowest walk rate in any extended sample was 10.6 percent. In the majors, he walked in 11.4 percent of his plate appearances. We should expect that rate to decline slightly, since most players walk less frequently in the majors than the minors. Yelich can still be trusted to post a solid OBP, and that should lead to runs scored.

Yelich displayed good power in the minors, including an ISO over .230 in 2013. Upon arriving in the majors, his power plummeted to a .108 ISO. This is quite clearly the result of some wonky batted ball outcomes. Yelich posted a ground ball rate of 63 percent (that’s high) and a fly ball rate of just 14 percent (that’s very low). So while nearly 17 percent of Yelich’s fly balls left the ballpark, he didn’t hit enough fly balls for his power to be noticeable.

It’s unclear what we should expect of Yelich’s batted ball distribution, but it seems very unlikely that he’ll continue battering the ball into the ground at this rate. For one, the highest ground ball rate for any qualified hitter was 60 percent. Incidentally, that belonged to Aoki. We also know that he posted respectable ISO’s in the minors, which is hard to accomplish with such a ground ball heavy profile.

Yelich also managed a 23 percent line drive rate. That coupled with his ground ball rate helps to explain his lofty .380 BABIP. Nevertheless, we should expect something much closer to a league average BABIP in 2014. Shaving away about seven percent of his hits would have left him with a .267 average and .355 OBP.

A walk through his PITCHf/x data reveals some interesting things to watch, although the sample size prevents us from drawing any conclusions. Yelich appears to have had trouble with breaking balls in 2013.

Yelich RA

As you can see, Yelich hit non-breaking balls for unbelievably high BABIP’s. Unless Yelich is one of the best hitters to ever play the game, we should expect those rates to regress.

There is less certainty that his low BABIP against breaking balls will regress. If a hitter is having difficulty picking up sliders and curve balls, then we might expect weak contact and a low BABIP against those pitches. That may be especially true when facing same-handed breaking balls. About half of the breaking balls Yelich saw came from lefties (139 out of 285). That said, with such a small sample at our disposal, the careful statistician would expect him to post a league average BABIP against breaking balls next season.

Interestingly, Yelich was most patient with breaking balls. That could be interpreted as supporting or refuting the hypothesis that he has trouble seeing break balls. He was particularly aggressive against offspeed pitches.

His spray chart is also interesting.

Yelich spray

He sprays the ball all over the field, but the location of the dots tells me that his pulled contact is mostly on the ground while he’s better at lofting balls to the opposite field. This hints at a mechanical problem that isn’t letting him drive inside pitches well.

Overall, it seems like Yelich isn’t quite a finished product. He has the ability to post double digit totals in home runs and stolen bases in 2014, but expect growing pains to accompany them. Hitting in front of Stanton will be nice for fantasy purposes, but the Marlins will need to bring in a couple other good hitters for Yelich to realize his full potential next season. With his upside, a low cost flier is advisable, but be wary of betting too much on him.