The Miami Marlins just pulled off an unprecedented, intelligent move in signing Christian Yelich to what turned out to be a seven-year, $50 million contract that would keep him around for up to three extra free agent seasons after his team control years are done. The Fish locked up the 2014 National League Gold Glove winner and someone who just spent the last season and change hitting a very effective .284/.362/.402 (.341 wOBA). They just locked up a guy who displays a tremendous approach at the plate and provides all-around value at the dish, on the bases, and in the outfield.
The reaction to the move has been mostly positive, with all of baseball seeing it as a reasonable signing of a player with tremendous value. There was one interesting quote from FanGraphs's Craig Edwards, however, that caught my eye in his reaction to the deal.
Yelich is a solid player with potential for more growth, but he is not yet a star and depending on how well Marcell Ozuna develops, Yelich could be the third best outfielder on his own team.
Marcell Ozuna got a lot of love this offseason from ESPN Insider's Tony Blengino, who was predicting big things for the power righty. We received no such article for Yelich, whose skills fly more under the radar. The above quote kind of points to that sentiment: Yelich has an unassuming set of skills and some deficiencies that lead to less future projection. This is in stark contrast to what the Marlins think of the 23 year-old left fielder.
Could a batting title be on the horizon?
"That could be a possibility," [manager Mike Redmond] said. "He definitely has the swing, the pitch selection, and makes the contact to be able to hit for a high average. I think his power is something that will get better and improve. This guy is still lean. He's still going to get stronger and bigger as he gets older."
"He reminds me a lot of Joe Mauer in the way he takes pitches, and really is able to understand his zone remarkably well for such a young kid," Redmond said. "He never seems to be out on his front foot. He may strike out a few times, but he rarely looks bad on a strikeout. He may just get beat.
The comparison between Yelich and former MVP Joe Mauer is an interesting one. Superficially, it fits the mold, as both guys are tall, lanky lefty hitters with an emphasis on contact and average and a great plate approach rather than power. Mauer never developed significant increase in his power hitting, but he offset that with tremendous contact capabilities.
This dichotomy brought up a question in my mind: what is the future of Christian Yelich? Where can we project him to go from here?
The similarity scores for projection systems like PECOTA do not appear to show great names to pair with Yelich. The name at the top of the PECOTA list is B.J. Upton, who by age 22 had put up a similarly valuable season like Yelich's 2014 campaign. The names further down the list did not match up as well either.
The names are sort of all over the map, from guys who flashed legitimate power to players who struggled with plate discipline to speedy light bats. Realistically, very few of these names, especially through their age-22 seasons, could shine a light on exactly what Yelich might become in the future. The best of those names remains the elder Upton, who later on lost some of the power he showed in that first full season and matched Yelich's likely power profile.
The Bill James similarity scores on Baseball-Reference showed no added value. The closest player through age 22 was Jose Tabata, whose skills are completely different and whose only similarity is his lack of power. Clearly, Yelich is a hard man to find comps for.
That doesn't mean we won't try! I took a look at qualified players from 2012 to 2014 and tried to break down their numbers to more closely match Yelich's career stats thus far. No one will match up his combination of below average strikeout rate, above average walk rate, high ground balls, and nearly no infield flies, but if we can come close, we can maybe project the future for him. The first cutoff was to include only players with a ground ball rate greater than 50 percent. That left us 29 players on the list.
We then sorted them by strikeout rate, taking a look only at guys with the highest rates. Right now, Yelich has a career whiff rate of 21.8 percent, so he needs to be placed in context with other strikeout-prone players for now. At the top of that list is his most obvious direct comparison in terms of prospect status: Pirates outfielder Starling Marte, who received a smaller but similar deal. Other names include Michael Bourn, David Freese, Everth Cabrera, and Yasiel Puig.
Each of the various players, unfortunately, only match one thing that Yelich does. Cabrera has the 60 percent ground ball rate. Bourn rarely pops up. Marte has the closest home run rate per fly balls. Freese most closely matches Yelich's strikeout and walk rates. But none of those players have everything, and indeed none have one of Yelich's most important characteristics: his excellent walk rate.
We could dig deeper to try and find some parallels between these players. Looking into their plate discipline numbers, you can see that Yelich continues to be a difficult match. Cabrera put up the most contact among the five players listed above, at an 82 percent rate that most closely matches Yelich's career 80 percent mark. Puig had the lowest rate among the five players. Cabrera and Bourn are the most patient among the players listed, at around a 42 percent swing rate, but neither player was as wisely selective as Yelich has been the past two years.
It was very difficult to find a player who matched up with Yelich's early credentials. His game is simultaneously that of a slap contact hitter and a patient slugger. He appears to profile like Matt Carpenter and Joe Mauer, but his contact rates do not correlate with those players yet.
However, those are the names of guys who might represent his ceiling in the years to come. Mauer is on the list of players from 2012 to 2014 with a high ground ball rate, and he matches up with Yelich's stellar pop-up resume. Carpenter hits more drives and fewer ground balls but has taken a patient approach to the logical extreme.
The only thing separating Yelich from either of these players, particularly Mauer, is his contact issues. Yelich upped his contact rate to 82 percent this past season, but even Mauer in his last three seasons has only dropped his rate down to 86 percent. Yelich has to reach that mark to be able to keep a strikeout rate closer to Mauer's 16 percent mark since 2012. However, if he can do that, the rest of his game should match up nicely; Mauer hit a combined .307/.395/.432 (.361 wOBA) which would be fantastic for Yelich in the future.
And consider that this is only Yelich's batting upside. He still provides great value on the bases with his heady baserunning and is now a former Gold Glover in left field with the athleticism to play center field. His upside at the plate may be older, worse Mauer, but that only scratches the surface of what he can do. If he ever develops the power that appears still projectable given his frame at this point, the sky is the limit. Even for now, however, he seems like a safe bet to be worth a lot of money in the future for Miami.