Christian Yelich’s Growing Pains

I’ll admit it, I watch Christian Yelich far too closely, and so far this season, it hasn’t been good for my state of mind.  Not because watching the Miami Marlins nearly everyday is like staring into the abyss (I embrace the darkness), but because the 2017 Christian Yelich I dreamed of, one that was going to seamlessly continue the rapid ascent he began in 2016, one that was going to stop pounding the ball into the ground and start pounding it out of the park, one that went on a hitting streak batting third on Team USA in the WBC, hasn’t quite shown up to the plate yet in 2017.

It hasn’t been totally bleak, of course.  As of the writing of this article on May 21, he has hit six home runs, which puts him solidly on pace to beat last season’s total of 21.  And being the leggy brunette and intelligent baserunner he is, he’s scored 28 runs (Mike Trout has 29).  His fielding in his new full-time position of center field has been anecdotally good (if slightly goofy), and he’s certainly shown he sees the outfield wall as no obstacle.  But Christian Yelich is a hitter, and as a hitter in 2017, he’s been largely unremarkable.

So, what’s wrong with Christian Yelich?  With my naked eye and human brain, I would tell you that he’s swinging when he shouldn’t, he isn’t walking, and for some reason he keeps pulling the same weak ground ball straight to the second baseman.  Over and over the outcome of his plate appearance seems to be a futile trot down the first base line and back to the dugout.  And if not that, it’s a strikeout and a slightly cringe-worthy display of perfectionist angst perpetrated against his bat.  (Or a cursing match with the home-plate umpire, who was wrong, by the way.)

That’s what my flawed human brain would tell you.  What do the numbers say, when compared to his 2016 Silver Slugger season, his career averages before the onset of 2017, and the rest of MLB this year?

Christian Yelich Production
OBP AVG BABIP K% BB%
2017 .322 .261 .290 18.9 8.3
2016 .376 .298 .356 20.9 10.9
Career (through 2016) .368 .293 .363 20.9 10.4
MLB Average 2017 .322 .250 .294 21.4 8.8

 

The numbers would say that his production is down, and as a hitter in 2017 he has nearly been (gasp) league average.  Surprisingly, though, he’s striking out less than my impressions would have me believe, less than his own average, and the league’s.  He isn’t striking out too much, which is good, but he isn’t walking nearly enough, which is bad.  Clearly, he must be putting his bat on the ball, and somewhere between his bat and the opposing defense, his hits are disappearing.

So is there something obviously wrong with the quality of his contact, or is he merely having bad BABIP luck?

Christian Yelich Batted Ball
GB% FB% LD% Soft% Med% Hard% Pull% Cen% Opp%
2017 59.2 26.2 14.6 18.5 44.6 36.9 35.4 40.0 24.6
2016 56.5 20.0 23.4 17.5 44.5 38.0 36.0 35.1 29.0
Career (thru 2016) 60.3 17.3 22.5 16.8 48.1 35.1 31.8 38.4 29.8
2017 MLB Average 44.4 35.6 20.0 18.9 49.2 31.9 39.9 34.5 25.6

 

If I were to sum up Christian Yelich in a single type of batted ball, it would be a hard-hit grounder to the opposite field, so it shouldn’t surprise me that Christian’s ground-ball tendencies are back with a vengeance, despite a slight remission in 2016, but I’d hoped for a lower number.  Weirdly, though, the persistence of his nearly 60% ground-ball rate hasn’t hampered the growth of his fly-ball rate, which has risen to a career high over 25%.  This rise is encouraging, and harmonizes with the pace at which he is hitting home runs.  More balls in the air, however, have come at the expense of his line-drive rate, hollowed down to a troubling 14.6%, which I am inclined to blame for his uncharacteristically low BABIP and overall drop in production.

Another interesting difference, in addition to the disappearance of his line drives, is the overall right-ward shift of his spray chart.  Continuing his trend from 2016, he is hitting more balls to right and center field.  Christian Yelich is still Mr. Ground Ball, but he’s no longer Mr. Opposite Field.  This, combined with an increased fly-ball rate, suggests that he has tinkered with the timing and angle of his swing.  Has his approach at the plate changed as well?

Christian Yelich Plate Discipline
Zone% Swing% Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Con% O-Swing% O-Con%
2017 41.2 43.5 80.0 67.0 90.4 26.2 60.4
2016 42.7 40.5 77.3 64.3 88.4 22.9 54.0
Career (thru 2016) 42.8 43.8 79.3 63.9 88.4 23.4 60.7
2017 MLB Average 45.1 45.9 77.6 66.5 85.4 29.0 62.9

His plate discipline data reinforces the idea that he is making a lot of contact, and his O-Swing and O-Contact rates, which are closer to league average than they’ve ever been in his career, could explain the regression towards league average in his production.  Pitchers aren’t pitching around him much more than usual (though they do pitch around him more than the average batter), but he is swinging more, at pitches inside and outside the zone, and since he is Christian Yelich and his bat is drawn to the ball like a magnet, he is making contact with pitches that he’d probably be better off missing.

The conclusion I’ve come to, after turning off MLB.tv for the afternoon and meditating on the data, is an optimistic one.  Christian Yelich is swinging more, and earlier, and at slightly different angles, I think, because he is experimenting, and this doesn’t worry me because I trust that his talent, instincts, and mechanics are sound.  I’m encouraged by the six home runs I mentioned earlier (evenly distributed to all parts of the field, mind you, including one 442 ft dead center in Marlins Park), the stability of his above-average hard contact rate (his average exit velocity is 90.7 mph according to Statcast), and his outstanding ability to see and make contact with pitches inside the zone.  I think we’re merely witnessing the awkward larval stage of his evolution into the franchise player Jeff Sullivan prophesied, and I expect his experimentation to pay off soon, perhaps as soon as the second half of the current season, as long as the woes of his franchise don’t hold him down.



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Jan likes writing, scouting, and watching baseball. She is studying Statistics at Eastern Kentucky University and plans to become a data analyst. She also works for the EKU baseball team as Special Assistant to Head Coach Thompson.

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Dominikk85
Member

I think he is pretty much the same player as always. His o swing rate is slightly up but 25% is still excellent. He is still beating the ball into the ground hard which of course is far from ideal but still allowed him to be a productive player. His K rate actually improved a little while his BB rate went slightly down.

His ISO is down too although he is about on pace for the same number of HRs as last year.

Biggest difference is BABIP which is 70 points lower than last year. I would like to see him doing the yonder alonso and hitting 35 dongs too but even if he doesn’t he should be a good player the next years (until either his contact or his exit velo declines – than he would have to elevate more to stay on track in physical decline like evan longoria and robinson cano did).

Jim Melichar
Member
Member

Let’s wait for the BABIP to rebound and the FB/GB rates to stabilize and see what we’ve got. I’m a hugely invested Yelich fantasy owner and I’m not worrying about any of it. I think the LD% will come up the FB% will come down and the GB% will come down (ever so slightly) as the season wears on. Then again, there are natural year-to-year changes in those batted ball distributions. What’s important is the long view.