The Miami Marlins are hoping the best outfield in baseball can deliver them another excellent performance like they did in 2014. The trio of Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton put up around 14 wins combined last season, and they will look to repeat that performance next year for the Fish.
Stanton's production appears like a guarantee barring injury, so the intrigue lies a little more with the development of Yelich and Ozuna. Yelich so far in his career has been remarkably consistent in his performance, and last season he tossed in a Gold Glove-winning defensive season on his way to a three- to four-win campaign for the Fish. How good will Yelich's third season effort be?
1. Christian Yelich
2. Ichiro Suzuki
Minor League Depth: Austin Wates, Brent Keys
The Marlins will look for Yelich to put up a second straight strong year in left field. Last season, his game plan was all about a balanced, above-average approach in all areas, leading to a quiet All-Star level season. It all starts with the bat, the thing Yelich was best known for in the minors. In earlier years, Yelich was often praised for an advanced plate approach and a picture-perfect swing, and he displayed both of those factors in 2014. His 21 percent swing rate on out-of-zone pitches was the sixth-lowest in baseball among qualified Major Leaguers, meaning only a handful of players were more selective with their swings. This led to him seeing the seventh-most number of pitches per plate appearance in the majors in just under 4.3 pitches per chance. Yelich made pitchers work deep into counts and drew walks in 10.6 percent of those appearances, meaning these chances led to a good number of free bases.
When Yelich did have to swing and made contact, he displayed the effects of that mechanically sound swing. Yelich hit just one infield fly ball in all of last season (after having not hit one for close to a full season in the majors), which helps to explain why his BABIP is so elevated compared to the normal. He also hit the ball a lot on the ground and via the line drive, as he had one of the lowest fly ball rates in all of baseball last year. Given his current lack of power, this may not be a bad idea, especially if it continues to lead to hits.
Yelich does have his offensive flaws, particularly in terms of power and contact. He still strikes out too often (21.8 percent career) for a guy with such littler power (.116 ISO career), but if he continues to lace line drives into gaps for singles and doubles, the Marlins may not worry too much.
Photo by Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
This is especially true given just how much Yelich contributes outside of his bat. He put up four runs better than average on the basepaths last season, split between a reasonable 21-for-28 steals performance and many advancements on extra bases taken. Last season, Yelich took an extra base on 52 percent of potential opportunities. If you want to get an idea of how effective that is, Dee Gordon has taken an extra base on 55 percent of opportunities for his career, while Mike Trout owns a 60 percent career rate. Yelich is nabbing free bags among the best in the bigs.
Of course, it is not easy to overlook his quiet defensive play now that he owns a Gold Glove. Yelich does not have a highlight-reel arm, but he seemingly gets to every ball in left field without mistakes and with a smooth glide. According to BIS data, he made a play on 167 of his 178 designated "responsible" balls in play, a rate that led the league among left fielders. He also made 20 more out-of-zone plays than expected. Finally, he looks the part of a capable, athletic outfielder with a sub-par, but not disastrous, arm in left field.
In short, Christian Yelich is pretty good at everything, and that entire package is worth a lot to Miami.
The projection systems are seeing similar numbers. PECOTA and Steamer expect a little decline in Yelich's sky-high BABIP, as Steamer is showing a .329 predicted mark. This is not unreasonable, but given Yelich's early reputation for solid contact and low pop-up numbers, that may be underselling him a little. ZiPS sees a better season at the plate more akin to his previous two years, in which he hit .285/.365/.400 (.341 wOBA) in nearly identical 2013 and 2014 campaigns.
The one notable addition each system is showing is an increase in the power numbers. After two straight years with single-digit homers and modest doubles and triples counts, all three are expecting Yelich to produce between 12 and 14 home runs. The doubles and triples are expected to stay static, meaning that these systems all expect to see a little growth in strength for the high school-looking youngster. Maybe Christian is really hitting the gym!
The average of these three batting lines is pretty close to his career marks, with an expected .274/.347/.412 line that might be around a .335 wOBA. The systems are seeing a couple fewer walks and a couple more strikeouts to his name, but overall, his body of work points to a consistent line that should get better once he learns the nuances of the league and bulks up those arms a little. In an expected 660 plate appearances, that line would be worth 12 runs better than average.
We can add that to his expected performances on the bases and in the outfield. Despite good performance so far, Yelich does not yet have a clear estimatable baserunning value other than to say that he is "above average." I would be willing to peg him for two runs above average without overstating that effect. As for defense, he has averaged just about eight runs per season above average over the last year and change. If we bump that down a tad and guess that he is an even five runs above average, that makes for a nice conservative estimate.
Add all of those numbers together and you get a projected three-win player for the 2015 season. If you are more confident in his defensive play, you can even bump that up to closer to 3.5 wins if you expect a repeat Gold Glove-caliber campaign. This is a more conservative estimate, but it serves as a good over/under for a growing player with an evolving skillset. If Yelich continues to uncover new ways to be above average, he may set higher marks in 2015.