Christian Yelich is supposed to be one the Miami Marlins' saving offensive pieces, as he is the best offensive prospect the team has developed since Giancarlo Stanton arrived in the bigs in 2010. Yelich's rookie effort last season had its ups and downs, and there are still some questions for him to answer this season, but one thing that has been show is that Yelich is patient. Last year he drew walks in more than 11 percent of his plate appearances, and this year, the Marlins are happy to see him extend plate appearances by seeing lots of pitches.
"He's going to hit at the top of the order, first or second," manager Mike Redmond said. "It goes, depending on how we go. I like the fact that he takes a lot of pitches and he's patient. He takes his walks."
In Wednesday night's 10-7 loss to the Nationals, Yelich reached base five times. He had three hits, including a double, and he walked twice.
The busy night helped drive up Yelich's average of seeing pitches. So much so that Yelich ranks seventh in the Majors in average pitches faced per plate appearance. Yelich averages 4.65 pitches per plate appearance. The MLB leader is Cleveland's Carlos Santana, who averages 5.05.
Yelich is now averaging 4.55 pitches seen per plate apearances, which is indeed a large number. The Marlins had no one who could approach that number of pitches seen per plate appearance. Last year, among Marlins with at least 200 plate appearances, only Yelich (4.25 pitches per plate appearance) and Stanton (4.14) saw more than four pitches per plate appearance. Stanton, of course, so that number simply because teams were afraid to pitch to him; when pitches throw 58 percent of their pitches out of the strike zone against you, you tend to take your fair share of pitches.
But unlike Stanton, Yelich is not a power-laden monster threatening to take any fastball out of the park. In fact, so far in his career, he has been the polar opposite, the type of guy who smacks singles and uses the gaps to his advantage. For that very reason, Yelich needs to draw walks to supplement his on-base percentage, because at this stage of his career, he does not have the slugging capability to supplement his offense that way. But so far this season, he has only walked in 7.2 percent of plate appearances despite seeing a ton of pitches every time up.
How is it that Yelich is simultaneously seeing more pitches and drawing fewer walks than last season? Pitchers have thrown more strikes to him, going up from a 47.3 percent to a 50.9 percent rate of pitches in the strike zone to Yelich. That may have gotten Yelich into more pitcher's counts than expected. This year, he has seen an 0-1 count after the first pitch in 22 of his 38 plate appearances, a rate of 57.6 percent. IN 273 plate appearances last season, he only saw 0-1 counts in 48.6 percent of instances. Yelich is getting attacked in the zone more often, perhaps because pitches know that he is less of a threat to launch one out.
Being behind in the count more often has forced the patient Yelich to actually swing more often in 2014. He has upped his swing rate from 41.6 percent to 47.4 percent so far this year, and that has primarily been on pitches outside of the strike zone. Yelich is now swinging at 32 percent of pitches out of the zone, which is absurd considering his well-known advanced plate approach. It is doubtful that Yelich is chasing too many pitches so much as he is protecting the plate facing more two-strike counts. Those swings are taking out potential walks, but they are also helping him expand his plate appearances. So far Yelich has made contact on 61 percent of pitches swung at outside the strike zone, up from 47 percent last year.
The problem is that Yelich also has some small issues with contact, and having to swing more often out of the zone probably exacerbates those issues. He never truly had an elite season avoiding strikeouts in the minors, and even with the increase in contact out of the zone, he is still below the league average in that regard. He may be extending those plate appearances, but too many of them are still ending in strikeouts.
For now, it is an ongoing game of adjustments and counter-adjustments for Yelich. He will have to find the right balance of early aggression and careful discernment that will get pitchers to attack him in a different fashion. Given his pedigree, it will probably happen, but his discipline has not yielded great results early in the season.