The Miami Marlins want to re-establish the best outfield in baseball, and one of the key cogs of that outfield is going to be Christian Yelich. The third-year starter has gone through plenty in his first two-plus years in the majors, including receiving a great seven-year contract for the Fish. Yelich struggled at the start of last year, but his second half tear brought him back to...exactly where he has been offensively in each of the previous two seasons.
Outfield Depth Chart
LF Christian Yelich
CF Marcell Ozuna
RF Giancarlo Stanton
OF Ichiro Suzuki
OF Derek Dietrich
Minor League Depth: Cole Gillespie
The Marlins will turn to Yelich again at the top of the lineup to set the table for the rest of the cast. In the first season and change of his career, Yelich did this by patiently taking pitches and walking, as he put up strong walk rates in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, his walk rate dropped below 10 percent for the first time in his career, but he supplemented that with more base hits. The result was an on-base percentage of .366, which exactly matched his overall career numbers. It also resulted in the first .300-average season for Yelich.
Much has been made about Yelich's intriguing skillset that has allowed him to be the consistent hitter that he has been over the last two-plus seasons. He beats balls into the ground with regularity, with a career 62 percent ground ball rate and the highest mark in baseball since 2013. He never hits pop-ups, owning just one infield fly ball in three seasons according to BIS data and a pop-up rate by MLB Gameday of just 0.2 percent (of all batted balls) in 2015. But when he does hit it in the air, he hits it hard; his 95.15 mph velocity on fly balls and line drives in 2015 was the 26th highest in baseball among players with 190 balls in play measured by Gameday.
How does all of this translate into 2016? One could easily point out that Yelich has been so consistently, well, Yelich that expecting anything more or less would be surprising. His BABIP's are high, indicating some level of downfall, but as noted before, not hitting pop-ups naturally inflates your BABIP compared to the rest of the league. Guys who hit no pop-ups are among the best at retaining high marks, including players like Joey Votto, Joe Mauer, and Howie Kendrick. Before 2015, we guessed a cohort of players with drastically low pop-up rates would average a .332 BABIP, which is about ten points lower than what most projection systems are now guessing for Yelich. His combined high grounder rate and low pop-up rate makes automatic outs on balls in play essentially nonexistent.
At the same time, the suspicion is that the upside of Yelich resides in him hitting more fly balls by changing the plane of his swing. The theory, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out last week, is that if Yelich could change up his game to hit more flies, he could utilize his obvious power on fly balls to crank out a better home run and extra-base hit game. There is likely some truth to this; Yelich has enough bat skill to manipulate his game, and you would suspect he could do it without significantly sacrificing some of what already makes him a good player. At the same time, changing your swing changes your skillset, and there is a question as to how much tinkering could be done to his game without breaking his picture-perfect swing.
Source: Eric Hartline, USA Today Sports
The one thing that cannot be denied is that Yelich is also a fantastic left fielder along with a consistently good hitter. The average corner outfielder put up a league average line or so from 2013 to 2015; Yelich was 17 percent than the league average, and that mark was 10th among regular left fielders since he arrived in the big leagues. However, when looking at defenders, Yelich has been in a quartet of fantastic left fielders. Since 2013, among the 11 players who have logged at least 2000 innings in left field, Yelich is fourth in UZR and DRS in runs above average, behind only Alex Gordon, Starling Marte, and Yoenis Cespedes. Yelich shares the fantastic range of Marte and Gordon, but his only weakness is his arm as compared to those other players.
For a player who has put up consistent seasons at the dish each and every year, there are definite differences in his expected performance between these three systems. Steamer appears to most bullish, pegging him for a line very similar to his career marks, but with more power. The other two systems think slightly less of the Marlins hitter, but the upside is present. Each system is expecting more than 10 home runs despite Yelich never hitting that mark before in one season. Each system sees around 30 doubles and some triples to his name as well. This may be helped by Marlins Park moving their fences up as well, something that none of the systems can take into account.
Overall, those projections average out to a .280/.353/.413 batting line, which is about a .337 wOBA. Over 600 plate appearances and 136 games played, that might equate to 11 runs above average. Tack on an additional one to two runs on the basepaths as part of a balanced approach and you might peg him for about 13 runs above average offensively in total.
If that were the case, he would be an above average corner outfielder without a whole lot of power, but with his great defense, the Marlins can expect even better. Yelich has averaged about 15 runs per 1000 innings defensively according to an average of the three systems. Regression with about 200 games of league average brings that number down to about nine runs above average. If Yelich plays another 135 games at left field exclusively, we might expect him to be worth 10 runs above average defensively.
Tack those contributions together and you get a season worth 3.6 Wins Above Replacement, Even with more conservative defensive contributions cut in half, you should still expect to see a three-win year for Yelich. That type of season is above average and on the cusp of All-Star play, and that is without significant power improvement or adjustment in his game. Unlike some of the other Marlins, Yelich is just 24 years old this season and has plenty of physical and skills growth room left. Imagine the possibilities.