Christian Yelich was a three- to four-win player for the Miami Marlins in 2014 and he was expected to perform even better going into 2015. He was heading into his age-23 season, held a ton of promise at the plate, won a Gold Glove in left field, and was the most balanced player the Marlins had on their roster. It was going to be a fun 2015 season.
Well, it might have been had Yelich not started slowly at the beginning of the year. However, a hot streak at the tail end of the season caught Yelich back up, and by the end of the year, his batting line and overall play looked exactly like it has for the past two seasons.
It may have been a different path, but Yelich eventually reached the same hitting destination that he had reached each of the last two seasons. In 2014, he hit .284/.362/.402, good for a .341 wOBA and a line 17 percent better than league average. This season, Yelich walked less, but he also struck out less and hit better on balls in play, leading to the .300/.366/.416 line, which was good for a .343 wOBA and a line that was 17 percent better than league average. The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.
Yelich did take a more worn-down path to this line, thanks to an early season slump. Through two months, Yelich was hitting just .220/.284/.293 (.260 wOBA) in 134 plate appearances. For a lot of players, that would be a fairly difficult hole of which to dig out. But Yelich turned it up in a major way past the month of May. He never hit below a .340 wOBA in any other month of the season and he absolutely destroyed the second half to the tune of a .342/.392/.473 (.374 wOBA).
Yelich also did this latest batting line in a different way. The early part of the season had a back injury that limited him at the plate and eventually put him on the disabled list in April. However, once he healed up after a rough May, his plate discipline returned to being close to normal levels. Yelich failed to hit 10 percent on his walk rate, marking the second straight year in which his walk rate has fallen, but from June to the end of the year, he did post a more than respectable 9.4 percent walk rate.
His improvement on strikeouts was a welcome sight, Yelich upped his swing rate this year and took hacks at 62 percent of in-zone pitches, near his career high from his abbreviated rookie season. However, the most obvious advantage to his contact approach was his 63 percent rate of contact on out-of-zone swings, which was a repeat from the 2014 season. This helped Yelich make contact on nearly 80 percent of pitches, which was lower than last season but still a reasonable amount.
Yelich's power still has not developed, which may be the last barrier between him and obvious stardom. He posted a second straight year with an ISO in the same range, with a .116 ISO on the year and just seven homers. He kept up the same rate of doubles and triples per non-homer hits as well, meaning he essentially maintained a stable power profile. The good news is that he is still avoiding hitting balls in a weak fashion; despite the consistent 60-plus percent ground ball rates, his 17 percent soft hit rate was not all that bad compared to his 16 percent mark last year. In addition, he still avoided hitting a single infield fly all year and barely hit what could be considered a popup. MLB Gameday data processed by Brooks Baseball recorded one total popup all year for Yelich.
One of Yelich's calling cards last season was his defense, and that was still on display for parts of this year. On one hand, his performance in left field was still close to the standard he established last year. Yelich got to fewer balls than he did last season, with 89.1 percent of plays made in his "zone of responsibility" compared to the 93.8 percent mark from last season. However, DRS still had him at 13 runs better than average while UZR saw him as more like league average in left field. Baseball Prospectus's FRAA finally had Yelich as an above-average defender this season, making it likely that he put up a year that was probably closer to five runs above average. On the other hand, the center field situation forced Miami to try Yelich in that area, and he struggled trying to cover more ground and using his weak arm to hold runners. He was below average in center field according to all systems.
Had Yelich played a full 660 plate appearances like he did last season, it is likely that he would have put up the exact season that he had in 2014. Among the three major systems, Yelich put up a 3.6-win season last year. Had he had the extra plate appearances this year, he would have reached a 3.7-win season. The Marlins cannot be all disappointed about the consistency of that performance, even if he did not reach it as easily as he did in 2014. Yelich is still a key part of the Marlins, and with his seven-year, $50 million extension just starting, Fish fans can expect more of the same.