Christian Yelich was the Miami Marlins' 2010 first-round draft pick and the first position player out of the first round to really excite fans about his talent. He immediately came out and began hitting at all levels, and his midseason trial last year was a venerable success. Heading into the 2014 season, I was expecting a solid campaign from Yelich, but figured that if he became a strong baserunning threat and a good defender in left field, his season could be even better than the modest projections said.
If Yelich becomes a premiere baserunning threat and a more positive defender by the metrics as his career goes on, he could easily begin approaching three-win territory without developing at the plate.
Flash forward to the end of the 2014 season, and that is exactly what happened to Yelich and the Fish. Christian Yelich hit about as well as expected this season; in fact, his overall batting line essentially matches the one he put up in 2013 in 273 plate appearances. Yelich batted .284/.362/.402 (.341 wOBA), and the mild drop in walk rate was supplemented by a few more extra-base hits. He got an almost identical batting average as compared to last year, but did so with less BABIP involvement, as Yelich hit only .356 on balls in play this year as compared to .380 last season. That was because he dropped his strikeout rate as well, down to 20.8 percent.
Yelich's plate discipline is well-known now around the league. He was among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance this year, having seen 4.26 pitches per chance at the plate. That mark was the seventh-best in baseball among qualified players. behind only known patience elites like Mike Trout, Matt Carpenter, and Adam Dunn. Yelich was also more selective with his swings, as he dropped his swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone slightly. This may have helped him make more contact on pitches as well, as he upped his contact rate up above 83 percent. That helped to avoid the strikeouts and brought him closer to being the ideal leadoff man for the Marlins in terms of patience and on-base skill.
Yelich has the added advantage of getting a good number of hits on balls in play. That is a manifestation of his primary offensive tool, which is his "hit" tool. Yelich was always known for his picture-perfect swing, and earlier this year, there was a clear and obvious manifestation of that: up until the end of the year, Yelich had yet to hit a single infield popup in his young career. He finally did break that streak at the end of the year, but that is just another example of his elite swing.
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But it was the other aspects of Yelich's game that helped him become a balanced All-Star caliber player. Yelich turned in good seasons in all aspects of the baseball field. He was a net positive as compared to average in each category of the game. He was an excellent baserunner; according to FanGraphs, Yelich accumulated four runs above average in basestealing and advancing bases on hits and outs, which was around 27th in baseball overall among qualified players. He avoided about one run's worth of double plays more than the league average given his opportunities. Those baserunning edges gave the Marlins small advantages.
The biggest non-bat edge Yelich probably provided was on the defensive end. He was among the better left fielders in baseball, depending on which statistics you use. Yelich was known to have a poor throwing arm, but in left field, that arm is less important because of the shorter distance of throws needed to be made. What he did show off was his impressive range and good instincts in working a large left field in Marlins Park. UZR rated him as 13 runs above average, while DRS had him at 14 runs better than average despite the terrible arm costing him five runs. The non-zone based FRAA of Baseball Prospectus had him as a net negative outfielder, so there is not full consensus on his ability, but Yelich does seem to pass the eye test in terms of being able to range in the outfield.
Overall, depending on what system and defensive stats you use, Yelich put up between a three- to four-win season for the Marlins last year. That beat out his preseason projection by a full win or two. Yelich's ability with the bat got him to the majors, but it was his work without the bat and with his other abilities that may eventually lead him to being a star in the majors. He still has things to work on, as his power output was very low for a corner outfielder, but so far, things appear to be on the way up for Yelich and the Fish.