by Matthew de Marte – March 20th, 2018
The Brewers’ new star center fielder Christian Yelich is already one of the best and most consistent players at his position in baseball. He has been worth 4.5 fWAR in three of the last four seasons, including 2016 and 2017. His 4.5 wins were tied for fifth among center fielders in 2017 with George Springer. Last year, his offensive production dipped from 132 wRC+ in 2016 to 115 wRC+ in 2017, but that is still 15% above league average. Yelich, who is still just 26 years old, is just entering his prime, and it is not unreasonable to say his best years are probably ahead of him. The question is, does Yelich need to elevate more to reach his full potential?
Among players who have qualified over the last three seasons, Christian Yelich’s FB% ranks 230th out of 232 players at just 20.5%. The players in this category are Howie Kendrick, DJ LeMahieu, Dee Gordon, and Ben Revere. If Yelich’s skill set were similar to these players, this would not be all that concerning. However, the problem is that he crushes the ball like a power hitter. Last year, Yelich had an average exit velocity of 90.4 MPH. The three players above Yelich in the exit velocity leaderboard are Matt Olson, Josh Donaldson, and Bryce Harper. Yelich is tied with Carlos Correa on this list as well. 45.2% of Yelich’s batted balls were hit 95+ MPH, good for 20th among players with at least 100 batted balls. Although, his barrel % among players in the top 20 of % of batted balls hit 95+ MPH is second to last at 4.7%. The only player below him is Yandy Diaz, who hit zero home runs. On the surface, it appears Christian Yelich could benefit from elevation, but as one of the best position players in the game, it is worth more analysis before giving a definitive answer. The following table below shows Christian Yelich’s GB%, LD%, and FB% from the past three years.
According to this table, it appears Christian Yelich is already trying to elevate more. In 2017, Yelich had an average launch angle of 4.7 degrees, up from 2.5 degrees in 2016. In 2015, his FB% of 15.0% was the third-lowest mark in a qualified season since 2000! Since then, his FB% has increased 68% to 25.2%. Although at what cost? In 2016, Yelich posted career bests in ISO, OBP, SLG, and wRC+. In 2017, his wRC+ fell 17%. When looking at his batted ball profile above, Yelichs’ GB% roughly stayed the same, and it seemed like the added fly balls were from a decrease in the number of line drives he hit. But, I still believe elevation is a good thing. It is important to note what a player sacrifices to elevate though. It probably is not better to hit more fly balls if it is at the expense of fewer line drives. It is more productive if a player has the ability to hit the ball hard and sacrifice ground balls for more fly balls. Let’s look at how Christian Yelich has performed by wOBA on each batted ball type in 2016 and 2017.
Note that the grand total is Yelich’s wOBA on all batted balls. Interestingly enough, Yelich’s production on both line drives, and flyball’s in 2017 decreased from the previous year. Even though his total number of line drives decreased, that doesn’t mean his production on them should. So let’s look even deeper! Let’s look at Yelich’s performance on batted balls hit 95+ MPH in 2016 and 2017.
|# of batted balls (% of batted balls)||224 (50.3 %)||213 (45.2 %)|
|% between 20 degrees and 40 degrees||21.4%||18.1%|
Nearly everything above in Yelich’s profile here decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017. It may not be enough to explain his full decline, but it appears on balls Yelich did hit hard, he was not as efficient in how he hit them in 2017 as he was in 2016, even though his average LA slightly increased. The last thing I want to explore is Yelich’s xwOBA on different batted balls and the results of the batted ball. The following graphics display that information. The sections of bars represent in order: outs, singles, doubles, triples, and home runs.
Just by this chart, you can see by xwOBA Yelich’s quality of contact was better in 2016. After analyzing all of this, I do not think elevating is necessarily bad for Christian Yelich. I think the lesson it tells is that he should not sacrifice line drives for fly balls. Although Yelich crushes the ball like a slugger as he has started to lift the ball like a slugger, his returns have diminished. If Christian Yelich is going to continue this trend of hitting more fly balls, he should sacrifice ground balls rather than line drives to do so. Last year, Yelich’s efficiency on his hard-hit balls decreased a little and with that, a reduction in his production at the plate. If Yelich can figure out how to sacrifice ground balls for air balls while keeping his hard contact profile, he could elevate to new heights as a player. Otherwise, he should not change a thing about his game. So, elevation may not be for him, maybe this Christian Yelich is the best Christian Yelich, and his game is not meant to play as a power hitter. As a big believer in the flyball revolution, it is difficult for me to say elevation may not be for everyone. However, being open-minded and objective to what the numbers say, I don’t think Christian Yelich needs to change. He is already an all-star caliber player, and unless he is elevating more baseballs at the expense of ground balls, it is not worth it for him.