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.

We hoped you liked reading Come Fall In Love With Christian Yelich’s Potential by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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