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The Issue with Yelich’s Move to Miller Park

Cost-controlled, 4-WAR players have the ability to revamp a farms system. The Brewers confirmed that notion by paying a hefty price to nab a piece that pushes the National League Central into a clear three-team race.

Reacting to trades can be redundant, especially after nearly a week for shock and awe to simmer down. Instead of reaction, I choose to consider how Yelich’s environment might affect his swing.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz, on the fantasy side of the industry and elsewhere, about how much this change from Miami to Milwaukee helps Yelich’s value. If we crudely compare the 2017 Marlins and Brewers, there isn’t much of a difference on the offensive side of the baseball. The Marlins actually outscored, outwalked, and outhit the Brewers, with the nine-win difference between the two teams attributed largely to the difference in pitching.

Yelich also hit between Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna for the majority of 2017, the early movers out of the Marlins’ new regime. The lefty will now hit between some mixture of Lorenzo Cain, Eric Thames, and Ryan Braun – a clear downgrade.

The key element of any argument for Yelich’s performance and resulting value increasing is rooted in the change of scenery – literally.

What we do know is that Miller Park in Milwaukee is a substantially for home runs off the bat of left-handed hitters.

What we don’t know is by exactly by how much.

Varying methods exist for calculating park factors. Guessing Yelich’s new level of production becomes slightly difficult to peg the further into this rabbit hole one digs. I used Stat Corner‘s methodology along with Baseball Prospectus to find a balance between what seemed to be aggressive and conservative ratings between Miller and Marlins Park. Where the two disagree is on how much, regarding home runs, Miller Park inflates the longball; it’s clear they both see Marlins Park as below average in everything (even home run sculptures).

(1) 100 is average, 105 means said park inflates said stat 5%. The inverse is true for 95. (2) BP is Baseball Prospectus. SC is Stat Corner.

To stop your eyes from glazing over as show off my skills in google sheets, focus on the two boxes highlighted yellow. Here exists the greatest discrepancy between park factors from 2016 to 2017.

2016 was a robust year for left-handed home runs in Milwaukee, but such inflation fell off in 2017; Baseball Prospectus believes more than Stat Corner. This is likely due to a difference in methodology – a topic for another day.

As any good arbitrator would, I want to split the difference, and naively predict the park factor for Miller to fall somewhere in the middle of 112 and 132. If we assume Marlins Park stays consistent on its park factor for 2018, we’d expect a 30 percent increase in home run totals (92 HR factor for MIA to 120 for MIL) for a left-handed hitter going from Marlins Park to Miller Park.

As a player sees half their games at home, in a vacuum, a 30-home-run bat with even home-road splits would see roughly 4.5 more home runs in his home games. A 20-home-run hitter would see an uptick of three home runs. Factor in everything else a park could help or hurt with and I’m confident saying, yes, this change will impact Yelich’s statistics. Thankfully, the difference between Marlins Park and Miller Park isn’t immaterial, meaning my crude math and assumptions can largely be forgiven in favor of a general consensus.

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Giving Yelich 21 home runs for 2018, roughly three more from his 2017 total seems reasonable. The question is if you think Yelich’s 2017 is the more representative body of work than his 2016, where he hit 24 home runs with a home run to fly ball rate above 24 percent.

Favoring Yelich’s impressive 2016 and providing an aggressive home run prediction could tie to a few factors.

The last of my trio above is the most interesting, given how beautiful and fluid his swing currently is.

This is where statistics and scouting clash.

I asked two of my most trusted baseball information resources (Kevin Black- @Kevin_Black_ and Richard Birfer – @RichardBirfs) what they’d do with Yelich given the knowledge that Milwaukee is a substantially better park for left-handed power. They both differed their response, mentioning how little should change for Yelich given the success with his current approach.

I probably agree, but speculating on something that might be far from Yelich and his hitting coach’s mind is more entertaining than agreeing with my reputable contacts.

Yelich’s batted-ball profile isn’t something often tied to praise. He sits near the bottom of the league in pull percentage (33%) and average launch angle (only 5.6 degrees in 2017). You might convulse at the thought of batted balls below a 7-degree launch angle, but there is misconception around that as well. Andrew Perpetua mentions how balls hit between 0-10 degrees are often hard to achieve because of how perfectly lined up the barrel of one’s bat has to be with the ball to result in this angle. As a result, balls in this window are very productive, resulting in a batting average of .472 and slugging percentage of .522 in just under 50,000 batted balls.

Sure, some of the balls he lifts to right field will have a better chance to carry out, but it’s even less convincing to suggest drastic change if Yelich sprays low line drives across the field successfully.

Yelich is an extremely productive, unique hitter, but his profile doesn’t “fit” with the kind of production that benefits substantially from life in Miller.

A wiseman once said, don’t break what isn’t broken. But as I remember the band Meat Loaf saying, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” In layman’s terms, if a more productive alternative exists… why not?

When I started mulling over what to do with Yelich in order to embrace Miller Park, a swing comparison came to mind: Alex Gordon. The Royal put up career spray and batted ball data that hangs right around league average, with a slight tendency for fly balls.

You’ll notice their swings are pretty similar. Yelich starts his hands further back and goes into a higher leg kick, but both these balls looks like they’re hit to left-center, with the inside-out approach Yelich uses to push his opposite field hit percentage near 30, five percent above league average.

Compared to Yelich, Gordon is willing to open up on pitches. Veering from Yelich’s inside-the-ball approach, Gordon generated a lot of his home run power to “true” right field. Yelich’s home run spray chart shows us that “true” right field pull power is something the former Marlin has turned to only sparingly from 2016 to 2017. Gordon’s spray chart across his most productive three years shows power that skews itself heavily to right field; a noticeable difference from Yelich even as these two hitters are a fair comparison mechanically.

The issue? I believe Yelich has more power than Gordon. Going to a slightly pull-happy approach for Yelich and mimicking Gordon deviates too much from his current approach. Balance, if we are to entertain breaking Yelich’s current poise, is key.

So how about Joey Votto? He’s a player with a somewhat-similar swing (as we’ll see in a second) and his career batted ball distribution is nearly even to all fields, with a fly ball rate lower than Gordon’s, but higher than Yelich’s. Here is that same clip of Yelich next to a younger Votto (2015).

The biggest difference I notice – aside from hand placement – is how centered Votto’s weight stays from his stride to front-foot plant. Yelich is comparable, but you’ll notice how much more Yelich uses his lower half to generate momentum towards the ball. This isn’t a fault of Yelich. It’s actually just me praising Joey Votto.

While I’d love for Yelich to one day possess the power Votto does and sit back so well, it’s tough to expect that kind of change. What I’d love to see Yelich do in Milwaukee is take the lift aspect of Votto’s game and embrace it, even with the knowledge of how productive the 0-10 degree launch angle window can be. I don’t want to see Yelich open up as much as Gordon and I can’t expect him to evolve into Votto’s power profile. So the balance would be to keep the same all-fields approach, but make a conscious effort to tweak and embrace a slight uptick in fly balls. Votto is able to do so with a fantastic line drive rate. Instead of taking the Yonder Alonso approach and shooting for the moon, a marginal tweak to “unlevel” Yelich’s swing, similar to the rotational path Votto possesses, could be extremely beneficial.

If no change occurs in Yelich’s batted ball profile come 2018, while I still love his move to Milwaukee for various other reasons (he is happy and has the incentive to win), I wouldn’t expect a noticeable inflation of statistics simply because of Miller Park.

And at then end of the day, we all need to be more like Votto.

A version of this post can be found on BigThreeSports.com.