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Christian Yelich's path to stardom

Gabe Kapler of Fox Sports recently penned a piece on the bright future of Christian Yelich. What does he have to do to improve on his excellent career start?

Christian Yelcih's sweet swing is part of what may make him an All-Star sooner rather than later.
Christian Yelcih's sweet swing is part of what may make him an All-Star sooner rather than later.
Mike Zarrilli

Yesterday, it was Christian Yelich's one-year anniversary of being in the majors with the Miami Marlins. He celebrated it with two hits and a walk in five plate appearances, upping his season mark to .282/.360/.430 (.350 wOBA).

It is interesting to note this because that leaves Yelich at 143 games played and 644 plate appearances for his career before last night's game. That is approximately an amount of time equal to one season played, so it is nice to see where Yelich stands one calender year and one season into his career.

Christian Yelich PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA fWAR
Past Calendar Year 644 .282 .362 .414 .345 4.0

In about a full season's worth of time, Yelich has provided four Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to the Marlins. Yelich is one of three players to log more than 500 plate appearances in a Marlins uniform in the past calendar year. In that time, he is the second-best Marlins player by WAR and third-best by overall batting line, as measured by wOBA, among players with at least 300 plate appearances.

Yelich's four wins in one season leave him in modest company among good, established Major Leaguers. Tied with Yelich are players like Justin Upton, Dustin Pedroia, and Jose Bautista. He has performed just as well as Anthony Rendon over the last year, and Rendon was a finalist for the All-Star Game's Final Vote. He is tied with Jacoby Ellsbury, who just received a seven-year contract worth more than $150 million in total.

This is all surprising, even for a highly-touted top prospect like Yelich. While guys like Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Abreu flaunt obvious skills, and Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are such elite talents that they were impossible to miss, Yelich took his top prospect status and quietly racked up an excellent season in the past calendar year. His work does not quite shove its greatness in your face, so it is almost difficult to appreciate.

But former big leaguer Gabe Kapler, now an analyst and blogger on FoxSports.com, took notice earlier this week.

Yelich has a superior stroke to any of the aforementioned stars. He displays a consistent, short, powerful, fluid swing with lightning bat speed. Scouts have consistently slapped his hit tool, or the ability to hit for average, with a 70 on their 20-80 scale. For context, a 70 represents a .300 hitter. Robinson Cano, to spotlight one, might belong in this bucket.

The power has been showing up sporadically; this won’t be the case for long. Some savvy baseball minds believe Yelich’s power will more likely show up in the form of doubles. I disagree. We are seeing a young man who will grow into a slugger as he learns to maximize his body’s potential.

With Yelich at a wiry 6-4, his pop will develop as his body fills out. His frame distinctly conjures up images of my teammate with Team Israel for the WBC qualifiers, a man I played against and saw plenty of, Shawn Green.

A comparison to Shawn Green, who had a career batting line 18 percent better than the league around him and finished his career with 31 career WAR, is not a bad feat for a kid essentially one season into his own career. But a year in, Yelich has already done well enough to earn All-Star recognition, even if no one was going to vote for him to make the team this year. His last year was tied for 38th among the 124 batters who qualified for the batting title. Of the players good enough to earn full-time playing time and stay healthy enough to get it, Yelich was in the 70th percentile. That is an excellent start to a player's career.

So what can Yelich to get even better? Look at the distribution of run production that Yelich has provided so far. Numbers are all compared to an average baseline.

Christian Yelich Batting Baserun Fielding Pos Offense Tot Defense Tot
Past Calendar Year +13 +6 +4 -6 +19 -2

On offense, Yelich combines a beautiful contact stroke that produces lots of hits on balls in play with excellent plate discipline. He has swung at only 41 percent of pitches seen thus far and only 23 percent of pitches out of the strike zone; compare those figures to the league average of 46 and 31 percent respectively. He also adds excellent, heady baserunning that goes beyond simply stolen bases. He has taken a modest but highly successful 21 of 24 stolen base attempts, but where Yelich separates himself appears to be in plays where he advances on base hits.

On defense, he has room to grown, but all of the metrics appear to like his defense better this season as compared to last. He has the pedigree of an elite athlete and performer, with his only negative being a poor throwing arm. So far this year, he has shown himself capable of playing center field as well as left.

Yelich has two paths to future success. His hindrance right now is a propensity to strike out, which leaves him more dependent on BABIP to fuel his high batting average. Yelich's first path lies in what Kapler describes: a rise to power. As Yelich's 22-year-old body fills out in frame, he should build better musculature and start being able to turn gap power into true home run distance. Even in a tough park like Marlins Park, Yelich has the pristine mechanics to eventually load up and put home run distance into his swings. He already is at the 10-15 home run stage for one season (he has hit 12 in the last year). A move towards the 20-homer mark would vault his offensive value and turn him into a great hitter and capable fielder.

The other option is to improve a small amount on every facet of his game. Yelich can still deliver a little more power. But what if he also retained the six runs per season pace in baserunning that he established this past year? Or better yet, what if he improved on that already ridiculous number? In his prime years, Chase Utley was a premiere baserunner; he is 133-for-151 on steal attempts (88 percent) for his career and averaged five runs above average per season on the bases in his eight best seasons in his career. Utley, along with other balanced All-Stars like Ben Zobrist, were also positive defensive contributors as well. Yelich would have a hard time doing that from left field, where the defensive demand is lessened, but if he were an above average defender there and a good hitter and baserunner, he could build small value that adds up to huge returns for Miami.

The Fish have five more seasons to find out what type of player Christian Yelich will become. It should be a fun journey to watch. It has already been a blast so far.