There is a lot of discussion right now about how Giancarlo Stanton can win the 2014 MVP award. A lot of it centers on who "deserves" votes for the award, what "value" really means, and all other sorts of nonsense that makes for annoying discussions of the meaning of value (which we will have later on!). It is unavoidable when you have one of the best players in baseball having perhaps his best season as a big leaguer.
But if Stanton were the only player playing well, it would be hard for the Miami Marlins to be close to a playoff spot in the mediocre race to the National League Wild Card. Stanton has needed help from the rest of the roster, and this year, he finally has help. The player helping the most, the one with the second-most wins on the Marlins' roster, is Christian Yelich, and he has done it a way that makes him hard to notice on the field. While Stanton clearly excels in a certain skill, Yelich has found a way to be decently good at just about everything.
Last month, we already began discussing Yelich's path to stardom, and that path lies in this quiet balance that makes it hard to notice his success. This season, Yelich has been able to put up a balanced campaign that lacks negatives; he has been average or above in batting, baserunning, and defensive contribution once you consider his positional scarcity. Yelich's hitting is somewhat noticeable, as he has a decently above-average line of .280/.357/.419 (.345 wOBA). But because he does not hit for power and strikes out enough to suppress his batting average, it is difficult for the average fan to see how good he is at the plate. Yelich's batting line quietly valuable.
The same goes for his baserunning. He has been successful in stealing bags, having swiped 15 bases in 19 attempts. But the low usage makes it hard to notice his work on the bases. As mentioned in the past, Yelich does good work advancing himself on what we might see as "hustle" plays, such as going from first to third on a single or scoring from first on a double. In truth, it is a combination of hustle, skill, and intelligence that buys him those extra bases.
The last bit of under-the-radar work for Yelich involves his defense. It is easy to see Marcell Ozuna or Giancarlo Stanton make spectacular throws home and laud their defensive play, but according to the numbers, Yelich deserves plenty of recognition for his work in left field as well. His arm is as poor as advertised, but everything else has been stellar; Yelich is averaging something between four and 10 runs above average between playing left and center field.
Only 16 position players who qualify for the batting title in 2014 have a average or positive contribution in batting, baserunning (including avoiding double plays), and defensive play according to Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR), and the list is chock filled with under-the-radar types who rarely get star recognition.
Some of those names are decent players who may not turn into much more than what they've shown here. But Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Denard Span, and Howie Kendrick, are not nobodies but quietly valuable players, even if they will never be stars. There are other players on the list, on the other hand, who are perennial under-the-radar stars who never get recognition.
Ben Zobrist was among the best four or five position players in baseball from 2009 to 2012 by wins metrics, but he only twice made the All-Star team only made it to as high as eighth in the MVP voting. Chase Utley was the Phillies' best player during their peak era and never cracked more than a seventh-place MVP vote at the time. Alex Gordon may be the best defensive left fielder in the game. Heyward is probably the best right fielder in baseball. Josh Donaldson may be the best third baseman and has twice been an MVP candidate.
The comparison to Brett Gardner seems the most apt for Yelich. Once upon a time, Gardner was a speed burner who doubled as an elite center fielder and godlike left fielder. But after a 2012 elbow injury that required season-ending surgery, he seems to have lost a step and does not get after the ball as well as he used to. Instead, he became essentially a perfect example of Yeiich's expected path. Gardner now only steals about 20 bases a season, but he also adds decent batting averages and OBPs and newfound double-digit home run power.
Yelich is already set to make it to double-digits in the home run department once he hits one more. He profiles a lot like Gardner defensively, minus the plus arm. And Yelich can steal bases as well as the new Gardner can. Gardner seems like an excellent example for young guys like Yelich and Starling Marte to strive towards while they work to improve things like power at the plate.
Christian Yelich is now expected to put up 4.3 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs and ZiPS projections. This would be second on the team by a mile, and it would also be a great start to a quiet star-like career for a player who should help carry Miami for the foreseeable future.